2-21. How to Win the Lottery

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The lottery has been called a “tax on people who can’t do math.” The odds of winning the lottery are terrible. But, as they say, you can’t win if you don’t play! You pretty much can’t win if you do play, either.

New Jersey and many other states use a parimutuel wagering system. For every dollar bet, 50¢ goes to the state, and the remaining 50¢ is split among the winners.

The average take for winners in the New Jersey Pick 4 is $2,768.50. The max was $5159 and the lowest payout was only $536. Here’s an interesting thing: the higher wins tend to be when higher numbers are picked. The lowest wins tend to begin with the number 1. In fact, none of the top 100 payouts of the last two years started with 1. Why? Because people tend to play numbers that have meaning. Anniversaries and birthdays begin with 1 frequently, as in 1970 or 1225 for Christmas, so more people play those numbers. That means you have to share your winnings with more people. The number picked is random, so since you have the same chance of any number winning, it makes sense to choose a number that no one else is likely to pick. 8632 will win more money than 1970 simply because fewer people will have picked it. You should also avoid patterns, and beginning with the numbers 0 or 2.

Also, the day you play matters. You’ll win more money on a pay day than the day just before pay day. Why? More people playing means more money in the pot, and people can only play when they have money. While this also means more people to share money with, if you’ve chosen an unusual number, you’ll come out ahead with more money in the system.A very simple way to look at the lottery is this: You’ve got 1 in 10,000 odds of winning less than $2800, on average. If you play 10,000 games, you’ll spend $10,000 and only win $2,800, on average. The state, on the other hand, is taking $5,000 and paying nothing other than overhead. If you can run a lottery like this, you’ve got a good deal.

In that spirit, today, we’ll be launching something new: The College of Curiosity Pick 4 Daily Lottery! You can play, and chances are, you’ll win. In fact, unlike most lotteries, the odds are heavily in your favor.

Here’s how it works in our system: You pick any four numbers. Every day, take $1, and put it in a jar. Then, watch the results of the New Jersey Pick 4 Midday.

If your number comes up, I’m sorry, you’ve lost. Today, you would have lost $2,787. But don’t worry, you don’t have to pay that money; you just don’t receive it.

Now, if your number didn’t come up, and there’s a 9,999 out of 10,000 chance that it didn’t, you have won $1. If that doesn’t seem like much, consider that in a year of your number not coming up, which is statistically likely, you’ll have won $365, depending on the year. In ten years, if your number doesn’t come up, you’ll have won $3,652.

But you might think, 10 years is a long time. Surely I would have hit the lottery in all those years. Statistically, it’s unlikely that you would. In 10 years, 3,652 out of 10,000 numbers will be drawn. Some of them could be duplicates, though this is unlikely. That means that if you bet the same four-digit number every day, you have about a one in three chance of winning the lottery in 10 years for an average amount of $2,768.50. In the College of Curiosity lottery, you have a 2 in 3 chance of winning $3,652, nearly $1,000 more than if you won the lottery in that time.

One important difference: if you play the New Jersey lottery every day, you could win more than once. In fact you could win every single day. The odds of doing so define the term “astronomical.”

But you say, math is hard! This doesn’t make sense. And to be fair, I’m way oversimplifying things. In fact, the odds are worse that I’m indicating, and I’m ignoring things like interest and taxes.

But let’s play it out in the real world. College of Curiosity will play our new lottery on collegeofcuriosity.com (using the numbers picked from the New Jersey Pick-4 Midday). And you can play too! The only rule is that you have to stay with the same number so we can compare the results consistently.

We’ll keep a running total of how much we’ve won using our lottery on the site. You keep a total of how much you win (or would have one). If you’d like to make it public, we’ll add your name and number to our web page and we can compare.

You might say, duh, why do this? Everyone knows the lottery is a fool’s game. Yes, many people know that, but judging from the $2.8 billion that New Jersey took in last year, many don’t. And some also think it’s fun to have a number to look at every day to see if you’ve won. The College of Curiosity Lottery provides the fun with better odds, and zero chance of losing actual money.

Our number will be 5 6 7 1, chosen by rolling dice with Siri. Some of the more curious among you will know why we chose that number. Others will have an interesting time on Wikipedia today. We searched back to February 11th of 2014, and this number didn’t come up. If we’d started playing a year ago, we’d be ahead by $261 already.

Let the winning begin! And good luck to everyone, though if you have the choice between favorable odds and a wish for good luck, we suggest taking the odds.

Lottery marketing is designed to make people abandon reason and embrace emotion

Lottery marketing is designed to make people abandon reason and embrace emotion

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4 Comments

  1. I did a similar experiment for a few years. The daily pick three and pick four draws were broadcast during a show I watched every evening at dinner time. So approximately five days a week, I would see the segment begin, and I would shout out a three digit number, then watch the draw, then shout out a four digit number, then watch that draw. I never “won”, except that I congratulated myself for not wasting money on my losing numbers.

  2. I remember hearing about a case where there was an unusual amount of people that won second place. Second place is not split up, everyone wins the same amount, so it cost the lottery a lot of money. It was so unusual that some sort of scam was suspected. Turns out, people actually DO play the “lucky numbers” of their fortune cookies. Everyone that won had recently eaten at a Chinese restaurant and used their fortune cookie. For once, this really did pay off.

  3. An Australian lottery syndicate bought all 3.8 million combinations in the Australian lottery and won. They hardly made any profit because the jackpot had to be shared among 11 winners. Good luck or bad luck?

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