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Best of Andrew N.S. Glazer

Gaming Guru

 

Lotteries Offer False Hope

22 January 2000

With the Odometer Millennium (I dubbed it thus because while the actual millennium is next year, New Year's Eve 1999 is when all four digits change) upon us, I started thinking about other numerical misconceptions.

The obvious gambling candidate was the lottery, in part because the odds aren't what most people think, and in part because (like the Odometer Millennium) lotteries arrive via a false premise.

The false lottery premise happens pretty much the same way in every state. The lottery "gets in the door" with the political claim that "people are going to gamble on the numbers anyway, or are going to buy lottery tickets from other states anyway, so we might as well keep their tax revenue in the state, and earmark it for education. We won't encourage anyone to play."

Of course, now anytime I visit New York, I'm deluged by "all you need is a dollar and a dream" ads, and on a recent visit to Atlanta, I could hardly see the trees, because they were blocked from view by a forest of billboards encouraging people to play "The Big Game."

"Gamble, please!" our politicians implore. "PLEASE gamble until it hurts! Unless, of course, we (the state) can't get our cut, in which case your gambling is illegal and immoral and we will throw you in jail for it!"

The phrase "hypocritical politician" is one of my favorite products from the Department of Redundancy Department.

The other false premise is that "somebody's gotta win." Well, that's not ENTIRELY false. Somebody does have to win eventually, but nobody has to win in any given week. That's how the big jackpots build up.

Thanks in part to Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk's weekly triumphs over million to one odds, most people have no earthly idea how hard it is to triumph over odds of a million to one, and lotto odds are higher than that.

Curiously, most people have an easy time understanding how unlikely more plausible events are. Go to a basketball game with 15,000 other people, hear an announcement that someone from the crowd will be picked at random to win something, and see how excited you get. Because you can see the other 14,999 people in the arena, you understand that your chances of getting picked are about the same as finding Elvis in the seat next to you.

That's 15 THOUSAND to one. 15 million to one is a thousand times harder than that.

The writers of my favorite TV show after Star Trek, The Simpsons, understand the lottery well. In one episode, Bart sells day-after-the-drawing lottery tickets for fifty cents. "Half off!" he exclaims, "and your chances of winning are only slightly less than they are with brand new tickets!"

In an even funnier episode, Homer announces that the Simpson financial troubles will end as soon as the lotto numbers are announced.

"But Homer," Marge says, exaggerating only slightly, "the odds against winning are 340 million to one against!"

"Wrong, Marge," Homer counters, while pulling out a thick wad of tickets. "The odds of winning are 340 million to... 50! With this many tickets, we can't lose!"

The first lotto number is announced; Homer doesn't have it.

"Dooh!" he cries, and starts to throw the tickets away.

"No, wait, Homey, you can win something for having five out of six numbers," Marge explains.

"Woo-hoo!" Homer shouts gleefully, and then the second number is announced.

"Dooh!"

If you want to keep your dough, instead of crying "Dooh," stay away from lotteries. The odds are horrible. If you must play, buy one ticket a week. That way, you're buying the right to dream about being a millionaire for $52 a year.

Only buy one a week, though. After the first one, you're just making bad bets-so bad that Bart Simpson's fifty-cent guaranteed losing tickets are much better values.

Dooh!

Andrew N.S. Glazer
Andrew N. S. Glazer was a blackjack, backgammon and poker pro whom Newsweek Magazine called a "poker scholar." He also was the weekly gaming columnist for The Detroit Free Press, and a regular contributor to Chance Magazine, and the top gaming information websites.

Books by Andrew N.S. Glazer:

Andrew N.S. Glazer
Andrew N. S. Glazer was a blackjack, backgammon and poker pro whom Newsweek Magazine called a "poker scholar." He also was the weekly gaming columnist for The Detroit Free Press, and a regular contributor to Chance Magazine, and the top gaming information websites.

Books by Andrew N.S. Glazer: