Mega Millions Winning Strategies Not In Your Favor, Say Mathematicians

Mega Millions odds are almost never in your favor.

March 29, 2012, 8:45 AM

March 29, 2012 — -- The Mega Millions jackpot, the biggest lottery award in the game's history at an estimated $540 million, has millions of people dreaming, however ridiculous the odds may be.

The odds of getting struck by lightning are about one in 280,000, according to the National Lightning Safety Institute. The odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot for the next drawing on Friday are estimated at about one in 176 million, according to lottery officials. Though that bolt from the sky may strike you more than 500 times before you hit that jackpot, it's still fun to dream.

Some people claim to have strategies to increase your chances at lottery games, but mathematicians say there is little you can do to win Mega Millions.

Watch more on "20/20: Lotto Frenzy: Be Careful What You Wish For" Friday at 10 p.m. EDT.

The $540 million prize has a cash option of $359 million, the estimated jackpot based on national sales up to the time of the drawing, according to the official Mega Millions website. Mega Millions drawings are held Tuesdays and Fridays at 11 p.m. EDT.

Matthew Vea, an army reservist and programmer, created a website four years ago that tracks the Mega Millions numbers that have and have not been drawn.

"Some numbers do seem to definitely appear more than others comparing the standard deviation," he said. "However, that said, I do joke that if that kind of analysis truly did produce a winning result, I would be a millionaire by now. The fact that I have a day job shows there's no predicting the lottery."

PHOTOS: Big Lotto Jackpot Winners

Now that the jackpot has reached a record high, Vea said he plans to use his website and buy a ticket to at least win a partial prize. Including the jackpot prize, there are nine ways to win a Mega Millions award, starting from $2.

Mega Millions sales for all jurisdictions for Tuesday's drawing were $190.9 million, bringing the total sales for the current jackpot through Tuesday, to $839.2 million, Tandi Reddick, media relations manager for the Georgia Lottery Corp., said.

In the drawing on March 23, in which there was no jackpot winner, almost 2.9 million tickets won Mega Millions prizes.The largest Mega Millions jackpot previously won was $390 million in March 2007, according to the lottery.

The record jackpot has grown since Jan. 24. That's when Mega Millions had its most recent jackpot winner, Marcia Adams, 33, from Georgia. She won $72 million and chose the cash option of $52 million.

One reason why there is no clear strategy to increase your odds of winning is the way Mega Millions is played, said Michael Shackleford, gaming mathematician and actuary.

The winner is selected through five balls drawn from a set of balls numbered one through 56, and one ball is drawn from a set numbered one through 46.

Mathematicians often use the word "odds" instead of "chances" to describe winning. The odds of winning any of the Mega Millions prizes are approximately one in 40.

But Shackleford said, "your chances of winning the jackpot with Mega Millions will always be the same. It doesn't matter what numbers you pick or the jackpot size."

For example, the odds that Tuesday's winning numbers for the $356 million Mega Millions lottery jackpot, the third-largest prize in the game's history, will be picked again on Friday technically stay the same. That's because the same numbers, one through 56 and one through 46, stay in the pool for Friday.

In fact, Vea said one set of five numbers has been drawn twice in Mega Millions's history: 11, 14, 18, 33, 48.

Shackleford said buying more tickets does increase your chance of winning, but every ticket has the same chances of winning.

"As long you don't repeat the same set of numbers, your chances of winning are proportional to the number of tickets you buy," he said.

In other lottery games, such as a Massachusetts' Cash WinFall, in which the odds of winning changed, players took advantage of that loophole. Convenience store owners reportedly bought as many tickets as they could for the game, which ended in January, once they realized they could win multiple times.

Shackleford said the most important "skill" in playing Mega Millions is trying to avoid having the same numbers as other people.

When asked if sharing $540 million among thousands of people would be such a bad situation, Shackleford said, "Yes, I would want the whole thing."

Unlike Richard Lustig, seven-time lottery winner, Shackleford said he favors using Quick Picks, the system which gives you random, computer-generated numbers instead of choosing your own. People often choose familiar numbers, including birthdays, which, if chosen, means you could share your winnings.

"Everyone was born in a month from one to 12 and days are one and 31, ignoring the late 30s and 40s. If someone were picking birthdays, they have a greater chance to split it with other birthday pickers," he said.

Shackleford also said many people choose geometric progressions.

The most popular selection for a Quebec lottery drawing in January 2010 were numbers in multiples of seven. In particular, 824 wagers chose 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, and 42. The second most popular selection, chosen by 424 wagers, was the consecutive numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. The third most popular selection was the mysterious set of numbers in the television series, "Lost." According to the Quebec lottery, 377 wagers chose: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42.

Another consideration, Shackleford said, is when to play the game.

"It's good for you when the jackpot increases but it also induces more people to play, increasing your chance of sharing it," he said.

Peak sales hours for Mega Millions are typically on the day of the drawing during the evening rush hour, Reddick said.

"We anticipate brisk sales as people head home from work Friday, leading up to the drawing," she said.

Parties with lotto fever can purchase tickets until 10:45 p.m. EDT on draw nights, though in Oregon, you can buy tickets until 7:00 p.m. In Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont tickets may be purchased up until 9:50 p.m.

Bruce Sacerdote, economics professor at Dartmouth College, studied the effects of lottery winnings from Massachusetts winners in the 1980s.

When asked why people are obsessed with the lottery, Sacerdote said, "for certain small bets we are 'risk loving.' That is to say we are willing to make a poor expected value bet for the chance to have an enormous 'transformative' gain."

Based on the survey, "we don't find that winning the lottery makes people miserable or destroys their lives in the long run. In fact, many people continue working after winning the lottery."

Several years after winning big prizes about 40 percent of winners are still working. People save about 16 percent of their gross winnings, on average. For each $100,000 won per year, people reduce labor market earnings by $11,000.

"People actually get utility from dreaming about what they would do with the money," Sacerdote said. "And again, actually getting the money does not make them unhappy."

Shackleford, who specializes in studying casino games, admits he has not purchased a lotto ticket in 25 years, "because it's a sucker's bet."

"I would be opposed to it just on principle alone," he said.