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February 15, 2012

Today Marty cashes and buys some lotto (Powerball to be precise) tickets, which brought to mind one of my pet peeves, so allow me a brief rant.

I have heard it regularly said that one’s odds of winning the lottery are basically the same whether or not you actually buy a ticket. This moronic piece of “wisdom,” when not attributed to unnamed statisticians or mathematicians, is attributed to Fran Lebowitz:

“I’ve done the calculation and your chances of winning the lottery are identical whether you play or or not.”

Now I don’t know whether Fran Lebowitz was being tongue-in-cheek or not, and I refuse to give her the benefit of the doubt because I just don’t like her, and have never understood her appeal in the least. But regardless, the point is stupid. Yes, the odds are ridiculously long that any particular person is going to win the lottery. Obviously. However, the odds of a given lottery ticket being a winner are infinitely higher than the odds of winning the lottery without a ticket.

I know that everyone who throws around this purported bit of folk wisdom knows that, but it drives me nuts anyhow. Everyone knows it’s an insanely long shot, everyone also knows that you do indeed have to be in it to win it, and that if you do hit it you’ll be rich. So go on with your bad self and play that insanely long shot. Hey, you never know.

Now, if you want to talk about stupid and insane wagering, let’s talk about the “Numbers” game from the lottery. There are 1,000 possible numbers: 000 to 999. Therefore, assuming an infinite number of fair games, your number will come up once every 1,000 drawings. So what odds do you think you should get? Well, with no vig you’d get paid 999-1, but let’s give the State a little juice. Even at a usurious 10% house advantage, which is about what you get on a low-end slot machine and is actually a substantially higher house advantage than many bets on table games in an actual casino, you’re getting paid about 900-1. What are the actual payouts on the Numbers game?


That’s right, you get paid $500 (actually $499 since your dollar isn’t really “winnings”) on your $1 bet for an event that happens once every 1,000 times. It’s insane. And why is it more insane than actually laying a couple of bucks at the 175,223,510-1 odds against you actually winning the Grand Prize in Powerball? Because on the insanely improbable chance you win Powerball you’ll actually be rich and won’t feel the need to risk your dollar on a dream.

What happens if you bet $20 a day on Numbers? You’ll be broke real fast, because even when you win you win so little that you keep playing at the insanely bad payouts, guaranteeing that the house will crush you (and it won’t even take the long run, particularly if you bet multiple numbers — since you can only even get the horrible odds on the one that happens to win).

As for scratch-offs, well, I’ll leave that subject to anonymous guy…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2012 5:58 pm

    Words of fucking wisdom! Right on! To me, unless you’re stone-ass broke, it’s worth the dollar to have the feeling that maybe it’ll be turned into millions which in turn alleviates any worries about rent, bills, work and Fran Liebowitz! And thanks for the shoutout!

  2. Fat Al permalink*
    February 15, 2012 8:58 pm

    Cheers Marty.

    I have to say, just writing that post made me want to flee to Vegas.

  3. February 16, 2012 11:14 am

    I’ve always been bugged by lotteries. There is the impossibly absurd odds of winning (I remember reading the odds of winning on the back of various tickets, something like 7.5 million to 1, and thinking that they were roughly the odds of me being the antichrist. The The One Who Comes In His Own Name–John 5:43–is supposed to be a living Jewish male, Shalom everybody, and with about 15 million of us around, well those match up pretty well, and really, no one wins the lottery, so…), the fact that it is functionally an extremely regressive tax, but primarily, if you’re going to legalize gambling, legalize gambling. Why have the state be a book maker? If we’re going to allow people to gamble, let them gamble how they want.

    Yet, I still oppose legalizing gambling in New York.

    • Fat Al permalink*
      February 16, 2012 11:15 am

      …making it clear that you are neither the Antichrist nor the Messiah.

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