Lottery Advice — Bad and Good

By now, you may have heard about the bad lottery advice dished out by “lottery expert”, Richard Lustig, this Monday morning on the FOX “News” channel. “Buy as many tickets as you can afford.” Business Insider calls this “literally the worst lottery advice ever given”. (E.g., Buying 60 lottery tickets leaves you as likely to die in a plane crash as to win Powerball. And, each ticket you buy has a negative expected value.) But, Mr. Lustig’s lottery advice is even worse than it at first seems.

Mr. Lustig is a self-proclaimed lottery expert by virtue of claims of winning lotteries seven times. (This claim is somewhat dubious as it includes several small prizes and two non-cash prizes.) But if you watch the complete FOX “News” segment, it becomes painfully obvious that Mr. Lustig does not understand probabilities.

Bad Lottery Advice on FOXThe real doozie comes at about 1:25 into the segment, when Mr. Lustig presents his arguments for not buying “quick pick” tickets. A quick pick ticket is a lottery ticket where a computer generates a random number to play. Mr. Lustig (incorrectly) asserts that playing a different number each time produces worse odds of winning than playing the same number consistently, over and over again.

This is simply untrue. Mr. Lustig is succumbing to a variation of the gambler’s fallacy.

The truth is, each lottery drawing is an independent event. That is, the outcome of one drawing has absolutely no bearing on the outcome of another drawing. Further, each possible lottery number has an equal chance of being drawn.

So, go ahead. Play the same number every time. Or a different number every time. Either way, you have the same (very, very, very, very, bad) chance of winning. And, either way, you can expect a negative overall payout.

Bonus: Good Lottery Advice

Next time you have the urge to buy a Powerball ticket, put the cash in an envelope in your drawer and go for a walk. While you’re out walking, pick up any litter you see. When you get to a trash can, retain any lottery tickets you found amongst the litter and throw the rest away.

This strategy has a number of advantages over various “pay-for-ticket” strategies:

  • You’ll have similar odds of winning the lottery.
  • You’ll feel a little healthier after getting some exercise.
  • You’ll leave the world a little nicer–or, at least, a little cleaner.
  • You’ll have a little extra money in an envelope in your drawer.

2 comments for “Lottery Advice — Bad and Good

  1. Brent
    January 12, 2016 at 9:59 am

    “Quick Pick” actually has an advantage: the numbers are not biased by any human meaning system so the chances a tie go down. If you play numbers based on your birthday, there’s a chance that someone else with the same birthday is playing those same numbers and if you win, you’ll tie and have to share. If you play numbers drawn randomly by a computer, the chances someone else will be using those same numbers is considerably lower.

    Also, as much as the game masters will ensure there are no biases in the results, the ping pong balls have idiosyncratic imperfections that will to a tiny but real degree make some outcomes more likely than others. So if you keep playing your favorite numbers even though they keep losing, there’s some chance that you happened to pick unlikely numbers. Again, “Quick Pick” spreads that risk around and evens out the bias.

    Also, “Quick Pick” will help you avoid the psychological connection to the game and the sense that your personal intuition is being disfavored by the gods or that you personally have a win coming this time around you can just feel it! By letting a computer make the choices, you feel the game for the game of chance that it is. This may help you avoid becoming addicted to the game which is a very real possibility. And more likely to happen to you than winning the lottery.

    • January 12, 2016 at 10:32 am

      Thanks, Brent, for the comment. Great points!

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