October 20, 2005
I spent several hours yesterday getting ready for last night’s Powerball drawing (yes, I enjoy the idea of winning as much as anyone, but I never seem to get around to buying a ticket). We killed the story, but on the way I picked up a few things, scientific and otherwise, about lotteries and chance. For instance…
Remember, the big lotteries are strictly random. There is no meaningful pattern to the winning numbers (or, at least, there shouldn’t be). If a number has been turning up a lot, that doesn’t mean its chances of turning up again are any higher or lower.
If you missed it at the time, there was a priceless story from the Powerball drawing back on March 30. Nobody won the big jackpot, but there were 110 second-place winners. A hundred and ten? Even when you have millions of people playing, the laws of statistics say there should only have been three or four people picking the same six numbers. Did they know something? Was there some sort of cabal? No, it turned out they had all picked the numbers from…fortune cookies, each with the same numbers on the little paper fortune, printed in Long Island City, N.Y.
The odds of any ticket being the winner are one in 146 million, regardless of the size of the pot. Your odds of getting hit by lightning are about one in 600,000, depending on whom you ask.
I talked with Austan Goolsbee, an economist at the University of Chicago Business School, who had advice for winners – mostly, he said, that money can’t buy you happiness. He’s seen two patterns in past winners:
–They wind up with a lot of hangers-on, long-lost cousins coming out of the woodwork, strange calls in the middle of the night. If you win, change your phone number.
–They get dragged into foolish investments. “Buy all the Hummers and yachts you want,” said Goolsbee, “just don’t plow everything into your brother-in-law’s company! A hundred-million dollars is a lot of money to an individual, but it’s not so much to a company. It can actually lose everything you won.”
Goolsbee e-mailed a few minutes later with another tidbit. Remember, he said, that the odds of any particular store selling a winning ticket are as random as the winning numbers. Nevertheless, traffic at a convenience store that sells a winner jumps about 30 percent for the next drawing.