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Picking Lottery Numbers – Part 2

Entertainment, Friends-Romans-Countrymen, Games and gaming, Math and Science

This is one of the most popular articles on my blog, based on the referral hits I get: Picking Lottery Numbers. The topic is very popular with users of nearly every search engine. Because of this, I thought I would take the opportunity to expand a bit on the original article.

If you don’t want to hit the link and read the article from 14 Jan, 2009, I’ll summarize here: A lottery is a random drawing, and it doesn’t matter which numbers you pick. In fact, the “patterns” that people see are assigned solely by one’s own brain. If they took the numbers off the balls and just put random pictures of granite from a quarry, so there was no discernable mathematical pattern to the figures on the balls (or lots, or whatever they use to make the draw), people would probably not waste so much brain power trying to figure out the “best” pattern.

In fact, picking 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 as your numbers for a pick-7 style of lottery is just as good as any other set of numbers, and that other article shows this by way of the chart for the old Super-7 lottery here in Canada.

Because people keep searching and hitting that article, I have had the opportunity to look at the search terms people use and have come up with a series of informational bulletins that, I hope, will impart a bit of knowledge about lotteries in general and how to pick the best numbers.

Lottery Fact 1: The only way to win, is not to play the game

WOPR realized that in Wargames and the world was saved from nuclear destruction. It’s a fact, that the best bet you can make on a lottery is not to play at all. If you look at the chart of Lotto Max winnings from the previous article, you can see that the numbers selected would have won a cash prize of $10 a few times (the match-4 and match 3+bonus), and a stack of free tickets. If we assume that a player saves his money and only plays the free ticket, the maximum win for the entire life of the chart is $160 over a bit under 6 years.  [edit: The original article used the now-defunct Super 7 lottery as an example, and the win was $710 over 13 years.  Super 7 had better odds than Lotto Max does.]

Statistically, that’s about what you can expect from such a lottery. Yes, you could win the jackpot, but your odds are vanishingly small. Still, there’s a chance (about 1:75000 for Super 7 over 13 years), so let’s add 1/75000 of a typical jackpot of 25 million to the pile just so that the lottery is presented in the best statistical light. Your total expectation of winnings would therefore be $710 plus $333.33, or $1043.33… let’s call it $1100 for a round number. That’s the simple reality… over 13 years you can EXPECT to pocket somewhere around $1100 on a pick-7 lottery.

For that, you will have paid $2 per week for 13 years: $1352, a net loss of somewhere between $250 and $640. Not a good investment. In fact, if you invested $2 a week at a mere 2% over that whole time, it would mature at about $1500 over the same time… and that’s at a pathetic rate of return.

Lottery Fact 2: But somebody has to win!

You might think that, but you’d be wrong. That’s why most lotteries have a progressive jackpot – nobody must win, and they often don’t give away the jackpot each draw. It (or a portion of it) gets lumped in the next week. That makes the next jackpot bigger causing people to buy more tickets in the deluded hope that they can win. Of course, with more tickets sold, the odds that someone will win increase, but since the jackpot is also split, so too do the odds increase that the jackpot will be split and thus be less to each winner.

A lottery is not like a school-yard raffle or a bingo game. Nobody must win, but the vast majority absolutely must lose.

Lottery Fact 3: I saw a thing on the web about a math student/psychic/software user who wins big

The technical term for what you saw is bullshit, although I’ll qualify that a little.

There have been lotteries that have come out with mathematical problems. It is possible, if you have the math skills and the financial backing, to score those lotteries. However, once flawed lotteries are discovered, they are shut down immediately. Thus, your window of opportunity is VERY small, and it only applies to new lotteries. It’s fair to say that any established lottery very likely does not have such a flaw. At the end of the day, any lottery is a business and if the business is flawed it dies. A flawed lottery would simply go bankrupt very quickly, especially once word got around. So if you have the mathematical chops, feel free to try and beat the system on new lotteries, but odds are you’d be wasting your time.

Psychics and astrologers don’t win big in lotteries. If they did, the richest people in the would would not be the Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, they’d be Sylvia Browne and Uri Geller. If it comes out of the mouth of a psychic or astrologer, you can bank on it being bullshit. Enough said on that.

Now, many lotteries use a system of numbered balls that are bounced about in a machine and allowed to drop, forming the draw. There are many software programs out there that will analyze the drops and look for trends. The information is typically available from the lottery web site anyway, so the software really just downloads the info and saves you the trouble of learning the math to do the analysis yourself. But does this analysis work? Certainly you can find plenty of marketing claims that it does… but if it works so well, where are the lottery quadrillionaires topping the list of the world’s richest people? The truth is, analyzing past draws to predict future outcome doesn’t work. If it did, the game would be flawed and would go bankrupt quickly.

The ball-based lotteries replace the balls regularly. Thus, even if there are tiny variations in weight or shape that might affect the outcome over a large number of draws, any given ball doesn’t stay in play long enough to affect the outcome in any serious way. Similarly, the balls have no “memory” so any given number is just as likely to come up next week as it is this week as it was last week. Past results do not affect future outcome… this should be every gambler’s mantra, and if you can’t or won’t understand that, just mail me your money because it will be the same net result for you and at least you’ll have the pleasure of knowing SOMEONE will be made happy.

OK smart guy, I know you play lotteries and I know you win

It’s true, I play ’em, and it seems like I win. Of course, you don’t see me lose… because I don’t mention it when I lose. I win no more than anyone else, but when I win there might be a coffee for my friends or maybe a beer if that’s more appropriate to the size of the winning.

I consider lottery playing to be entertainment and nothing more. It comes out of my entertainment budget, from discretionary spending. Winnings go back into the entertainment budget. On the balance, all my lottery playing has been a net loss by a long shot. I consider playing the lottery to be “stupid spending” like playing the games at a carnival… mildly fun, but I know I’m getting it in the rear just by putting my money in.

Whatever… How do you pick your numbers?

Well, I often pick the first n-numbers required (1,2,3,4,5,6,7 on a pick-7; 1,2,3,4,5,6 on a pick-6 and so forth). If I am feeling creative, I try to draw a little picture on the fill-in-the-squares slip, although it’s hard with only 5-7 “pixels”. Sometimes I start at one corner of the pick-box and make little knight’s-moves (up 2, over 1; or up 1, over 2) moving around the chessboard of the pick sheet. If I’m feeling lazy, I just get a quick-pick. It makes absolutely no difference whatsoever.

Summary: How to pick your lottery numbers

The best bet – Don’t pick any numbers. Don’t buy a ticket. Save your money.

Going to play anyway – It doesn’t matter how you pick them. Wing it… picking is part of the fun of playing. Definitely don’t pay anyone else money for software, psychic reading or any of that crap. Playing a lottery is a waste of money, but paying some nimrod money to pick numbers for you is something even Forrest Gump would be ashamed of

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