Cracking the Scratch Lottery Code

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Perhaps Ginther is simply the luckiest person on earth. (She has refused almost all requests from journalists for comment.) While the lotteries are extremely rigorous about various aspects of security, from the integrity of the latex to the cashing of tickets at stores, the industry appears to have not considered the possibility of plundering the games using the visible numbers on the ticket. For instance, when I contacted the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, their security experts couldn't recall having heard of Mohan Srivastava or the broken Ontario games. This is one of the largest trade associations of lotteries in the world, and it had no recollection that at least a few of its games had been proven to be fatally flawed.

And this is why the story of the crackable tic-tac-toe tickets has larger significance. "The lottery corporations all insist that their games are safe because they are vetted by outside companies," Srivastava says. "Well, they had an outside auditor approve the tic-tac-toe game. They said it couldn't be broken. But it could." Fundamentally, he believes that creating impregnable tickets is extremely difficult, if not impossible. "There is nothing random about the lottery," he says. "In reality, everything about the game has been carefully designed to control payouts and entice the consumer." Of course, these elaborate design elements mean that the ticket can be undesigned, that the algorithm can be reverse-engineered. The veneer of chance can be peeled away.

What's most disturbing, perhaps, is that even though Srivastava first brought these flaws to the attention of the authorities in 2003, they continue to appear. A few months ago, Srivastava bought some scratch tickets at convenience stores in Toronto. He started out with a Bingo ticket, which featured an elaborate hook. After a day of statistical analysis, Srivastava was able to double his chances of choosing a winning ticket. (Normally, 30 percent of the tickets feature a payout—he was able to select winners approximately 60 percent of the time.) "That might not sound very impressive, since I'm still going to buy plenty of losers," Srivastava says. "But it's a high enough percentage that one could launder money effectively." In one of his most recent trials, conducted at the request of Wired, Srivastava identified six unscratched tickets as probable winners out of a set of 20 cards. If the tickets were uncrackable, approximately two of them should have been winners. Instead, Srivastava ended up with four. The odds of this happening by chance are approximately one in 50. And yet he's done it multiple times with a variety of Bingo and Super Bingo games. (An Ontario Lottery spokesperson says they're unaware of the issue.)

How did he do it? He used a version of the frequency trick. The number of times a digit appeared on the baited hook revealed crucial information about the bingo numbers underneath the latex coating. Srivastava could tilt the odds in his favor, like a gambler counting cards in a casino.

The fact that these games can be manipulated, that a geological statistician can defeat their algorithm, seems to undercut a crucial part of the lottery's appeal. Everybody knows that the chances of winning a big payday are minuscule, a tiny 1 in front of an awful lot of zeros. But we play anyway, because hope is an irrational hunch. We assume that, even if the odds are stacked against us, we might get lucky. Today might be the day. And then, when the latex reveals a stack of losers, when we've lost our money yet again, we blame the fickleness of fate. But maybe our bad luck isn't the problem. Maybe we never win because someone else has broken the game.

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