Day 19: Lotto Logic

There are many, many lotteries available for people to play. They’ve sometimes been called “a tax on people who are bad at math“. That’s amusing enough, but I also see them as a way for the state to prey on poor people by offering them false hope. Go to any corner store in a poor neighborhood, and right in that choice spot right next to the checkout register will be the lottery tickets.

Before lotteries were legal, the numbers game was a big thing. Same basic idea: bet a dollar for a chance to win a jackpot. In New York, the numbers was run by the Mafia, and running around the neighborhood collecting bets was a common first job for wannabe gangsters. The government rarely enforced the laws against gambling for these rackets, but soon figured out that instead of spending money to track down and bust these operations, they could just create a legal lottery and collect the house’s cut for themselves. Of course, they made it more palatable by saying that the money collected would be used for education. Turns out that they cut the budgets for education by the amount that the lotteries generated, so while the lottery money technically did go to education, it didn’t add to the funds for schools.

In recent years the trend has been away from state-run lotteries toward massive multi-state games, such as Mega Millions and Powerball. The reason for this is that the jackpots get absurdly big after only a few draws. It is not uncommon for the jackpots to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. When they get that high, people go crazy buying tickets.

The odds of selecting the right numbers for Mega Millions is 1 in 36,309,042,000. That’s one in 36 BILLION.

You may wonder what is the ideal strategy for playing these games. Many people would argue that the best strategy is not to play at all – and they have a good point. I think, though, that it depends.

If you don’t play, your chances of winning is zero. If you play the smallest amount, a single $2 game, your chance increases from zero to 1 in 36 billion. That’s significant, as it changes your possible result from definitely not winning to having an infinitesimal chance of winning.

So if you play more games per drawing, your chances increase, right. Well, in one sense they do, but in a more practical sense, they are still infinitesimal. But remember that the money you bet comes out of your disposable income. For most people, that much money is much more than one billionth! The lower your income, the more significant a chunk will be (likely) lost to the lottery.

Even if you don’t win, though, playing the lottery buys you something: the chance to dream of winning! From the moment you buy the ticket until you check your numbers, you are in that Schrödinger state of winning and not winning, and can fantasize about luxurious travel, or expensive cars, or whatever else you would do with that much money. That ability to dream is a benefit that many people overlook, but it’s the part that the people running the lottery count on to get you to buy those tickets.

The best strategy, then, is to buy a single ticket, unless that $2 would mean doing without basic necessities. By buying a single ticket you have some chance, albeit minuscule. Buying more than one doesn’t really increase your chances significantly, but takes a bigger and bigger bite out of your disposable income. So buy that one ticket, and dream away!

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