It’s Math: Why You Should Never Play The Lottery
I defy you to find anyone who has never fantasized about winning the lottery. The house! The travel! The help for loved ones and favorite charities! Someone to deliver a single, perfect piece of chocolate to your door every day! (OK, maybe that’s just me.)
While most of us will never see that kind of money dumped in our laps, a select few lottery winners do actually get to realize their fantasy—and on Saturday night, someone could win the largest Powerball lottery ever, $700 million .
Richard Lustig of Orlando, FL, has won seven lottery grand prizes through a system he developed.
One of the “luckiest” people in the nation is Richard Lustig, author of Learn How To Increase Your Chances of Winning the Lottery, who has won seven lottery grand prizes and perfected his strategy though trial and error. “When the lottery came to Florida, I was like everybody else: ‘Wow, buy lottery tickets, win a lot of money, retire, buy a big fancy yacht, whatever, blah, blah, blah,’” he said. “Like everybody else, I was running out and buying haphazardly, buying quick picks, I mean buying tickets with no plan, or no method, or whatever. Like everybody else, I was losing all the time.”
Then Lustig realized there had to be a way to increase his chances. Every time something worked, he’d write it down. Eventually, he had a “formula” that worked for him and others. His main tips–which don’t all follow strict mathematical logic, and have been discounted by some as nonsense–for those playing lotteries are below:
- Don’t use the “quick-pick” numbers generated from the store’s computer. Even though it seems like every number has an equal amount of “luck,” certain number sets are better than others. “ Every time you buy a quick pick, you get a different set of numbers; therefore, your odds are always going to be at their worst in that particular game, whatever game you’re playing. In this case, the hype, of course, is all about the Powerball right now,” Lustig says.
- Go beyond the birthdays. The spread is important—if you always choose birth month and dates, like most people do, you’re relegating yourself to less than half the numbers available, 1 through 31. Equally important about including bigger numbers: “If you pick your own numbers and only play birthdays and anniversaries, you’re splitting the pot with 20-40 people. If you spread the numbers out across the whole track, you’ll either be the only winner or will split it with only one or two people,” Lustig says.
- Don’t change the numbers. Once you’ve determined which numbers are “good,” (he recommends a specific way to find these in his book) don’t switch them, play them every time. If you buy more than one card, use a different set of numbers. “Remember, a set of numbers wins the grand prize, not individual numbers,” Lustig says. He says it’s OK to repeat a number or two, but be sure each group of numbers is mostly different so you increase your odds. (Though, if you’re looking at this in a solid math sense, in a fair lottery, every number has the same probability of being drawn.)
- Play consistently. “Never miss a drawing in the game you’re playing. Every Saturday, every Wednesday, every week,” Lustig says.
- Understand the odds, but know your limits: If you play 100 cards, you’ll have a better chance than if you pay just 10—but only play what you can afford to lose. It’s not a regular investment, as in an IRA or a stock. “One of the things that I preach to people all the time is budget, budget, budget,” Lustig says. “Set a budget of what you’re going to spend. Do not get caught up in what’s called lottery fever. Don’t spend grocery money. Don’t spend rent money. Figure out what you can afford to spend. Don’t worry about how much Joe Blow down the street is spending. … Figure out what your budget is, what you can comfortably afford to spend, and stay within that budget.”
Does it really pay to play?
Of course, plenty of financial professionals say it’s never worth it to play the lottery. Even though there’s a lot to be gained, in general, playing Powerball is still a bad decision because you never get the full jackpot, and chances are you’ll be splitting it, says Paul Dreyer, a mathematician for the RAND Corporation (who, for the record, fully disagrees with the logic of Lustig’s method).
He broke down the probability this way: “There are pieces to the Powerball lottery, the major cash prize and the smaller prizes for matching some, but not all, of the numbers. When you add up the expected earnings just from the smaller prizes, it comes out to about $0.32 per ticket. That means that for every $2 ticket you play, for a ticket to be ‘worth it’ in the long term, the expected earnings from the big prize should be at least $1.68.
“The probability of winning the big prize is 1 in 292,201,338. The naive argument would be that once the jackpot gets above $473 million, you should buy a ticket because your expected winnings per ticket is greater than the $2 you spent on the ticket.”
He adds that most people would think that playing for the $700 million jackpot is a “no brainer,” but there are things to consider:
The $700M is a 30-year annuity. The cash now option is typically 60 to 70% of the jackpot. For the current jackpot it is $428.4M, about 61% of the annuity total.
Everyone will be playing. For the sake of an example, if all 320 million people in the United States buy a single random ticket the probability that at least one person wins is about 66.6%. “That ‘at least’ part is key, though,” Dreyer says. “The probability that exactly one person wins is 36.6%. That means that 45% of the time, if you win, you’re splitting the jackpot with at least one other person. . Presumably, the larger the prize, the more tickets are purchased by people, and the more likely you are to split the prize. It is a nasty spiral.”
He adds: “However, I have no desire to be a lottery curmudgeon. If you have $2 available and buying that ticket lets you enjoy a momentary dream of your own private island, consider it a cost of entertainment. That statement is predicated on having the $2 available, which gets to the issue of lottery participants which participate in large numbers but may not have the disposable income to support it, namely the poor.”
A seven-time lottery winner shares his strategies for picking and playing numbers.