Playing the Lottery

If you enjoy a little gambling, and think it’s fun to buy a couple bucks worth of lottery tickets every week and win five dollars back once in a while, go right ahead. No harm there.

But if you buy lottery tickets because you’re hoping to win the big one, the $10+ million jackpot, don’t.

You’ll never win the jackpot. I guarantee it. Why?

Because nobody ever wins it.

Whoa! What am I talking about? We see and read about the big winners in the paper and on television all the time! What do I mean, nobody ever wins?

When I say that nobody ever wins, I’m not speaking in terms of mathematical absolutes, I’m talking in terms of practical reality. It’s like saying, ah, I’ll never catch a foul ball at Yankee Stadium. Or, I’ll never make it through the DMV in less than two hours.

Except that, in the case of hitting the lottery jackpot, you’ve actually got a much better chance of tripping over money on the street, because the odds of hitting the jackpot in, for example, the California Lottery, are one in 14 million. It’s hard to describe how astronomically remote those odds are. Suffice it to say, I’m not out of line when I tell you that you will never win.

The reason you hear about it when someone does win is because the people running the lottery want you to believe it can happen to you. They run all these great ads showing people buying swimming pools and expensive cars and condos in Bimini because it gives you hope that it can happen to you, too.

It can’t. The odds are 14 million to one. That makes it a practical impossibility. That’s why it’s such news whenever somebody wins. The last time I checked on a big lottery pool, there were three winning tickets. That’s out of the 47 million that were sold.

Think of it this way: Suppose you go to Vegas and put a dollar down on red at the roulette wheel. If you win, you get another dollar back. Your odds of winning are 50-50. (They’re actually a little less than that because, in addition to red an black numbers, there are also two little green ones, called 0 and 00. If the ball lands on one of those, all the bets on red or black lose. But we’ll say 50-50 because it makes the arithmetic simpler. Let’s also assume that the house will let you exceed the maximum bet limit.)

Let’s say you do win. Now you have two dollars, and you put them back on red. You win again, and now you have four dollars. You keep doing that, over and over, letting your winning money ride to the next bet. But if you lose even once, you lose it all, and the game is over.

If red comes up 23 times in a row, you will have won about $17 million.

You might be thinking, wait a minute! Are you kidding me here? What are the odds of red coming up 23 times in a row!

Actually, they’re twice as good as your odds of winning the lottery.

And now you’re thinking, Yeah, but the winning ticket could be mine!

No, it can’t. You’ve got less of a chance of winning the lottery than you do of contracting Schmeckheimer’s syndrome from drinking too much faloopi juice. (see Medical Risks)

The lottery is nothing more than a tax on people who are bad at math.

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