Cracking the Scratch Lottery Code

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Instead of secretly plundering the game, he decided to go to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. Srivastava thought its top officials might want to know about his discovery. Who knows, maybe they'd even hire him to give them statistical advice. "People often assume that I must be some extremely moral person because I didn't take advantage of the lottery," he says. "I can assure you that that's not the case. I'd simply done the math and concluded that beating the game wasn't worth my time."

When Srivastava reported his finding, he was referred to Rob Zufelt, a member of the lottery corporation's security team. After failing to make contact for a few days, he began to get frustrated: Why wasn't Zufelt taking his revelation more seriously? "I really got the feeling that he was brushing me off," Srivastava says. "But then I realized that to him I must sound like a crazy person—like one of those people who claims that he can crack the lotto draw because last night's number was his birthday spelled backward. No wonder they didn't want to talk to me." Instead of trying to get Zufelt to return his calls, Srivastava decided to send him a package. He bought 20 tic-tac-toe tickets and sorted them, unscratched, into piles of winners and losers. Then, he couriered the package to Zufelt along with the following note:

In the enclosed envelopes, I have sent you two groups of 10 TicTacToe tickets that I purchased from various outlets around Toronto in the past week… You go ahead and scratch off the cards. Maybe you can give one batch to your lottery ticket specialist. After you've scratched them off, you should have a pretty solid sense for whether or not there's something fishy here.

The package was sent at 10 am. Two hours later, he received a call from Zufelt. Srivastava had correctly predicted 19 out of the 20 tickets. The next day, the tic-tac-toe game was pulled from stores.

Srivastava, meanwhile, was becoming even more interested in scratch tickets. "It got to the point where I knew I needed to get back to my real job," he says. "But I found it hard to believe that only this tic-tac-toe game was flawed. What were the odds that I just happened to stumble upon the only breakable game the very first time I played the lottery? Of course, I knew it was possible that every other scratch game was totally secure. I just didn't think it was very likely."

He began by looking at other tic-tac-toe games in the US and Canada. Srivastava soon discovered that it wasn't just an Ontario problem. At the time, one of his best friends was living in Colorado, and Srivastava asked him to send along a few tickets. It turned out that the same singleton trick also worked on the Colorado game, albeit with only a 70 percent level of accuracy. (Colorado Lottery officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Srivastava was even able to break a Super Bingo game (sold in Ontario in 2007), which also featured an elaborate baited hook. In this case, he says he could sort winners from losers with a 70 percent success rate. The Ontario Lottery says the Super Bingo game didn't have the same flaw as the tic-tac-toe game but that it was pulled off the Ontario market in March 2007 as a precaution.

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