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Editorial: Winning the lottery: statistics and superstitions

Depending on which lottery you're playing, your odds of getting the big prize are anywhere from 1 in 14 million to 1 in 140 million. As many cynics have readily pointed out in the past, you're more likely to die a bizarre death (lightning strike anyone?) than to win the lottery. Many longtime lottery players assume that the more they play, the more likely they are to win. While playing multiple tickets will minutely improve your odds, playing multiple lotteries will not because each draw has its own unique odds. In other words, you're as likely to win the lottery with your 1000th ticket as you were with your first.

Many systems have been devised to predict the lottery numbers, but ultimately the number of possible combinations is so high and past outcomes are so random that there simply isn't enough accurate data to do it. Systems supported by a single correct prediction are more likely to be coincidental wins. Add more balls, specify an order, or pull from two different sets (as the U.S. Powerball lottery does) and you complicate the odds even more. Your odds of winning the lottery—any lottery—are so low that many believe it takes supernatural assistance or divine intervention to win.

Winning the LotteryMany self-proclaimed psychics have attempted to predict lottery numbers with mixed results. The most recent, Derren Brown, did an entire show on “How to Win the Lottery.” While Brown himself covered the probability of winning the lottery in a spot-on numbers segment, he also talked about things like intuition. He brought the show to a close by watching a “live” broadcast of the National Lottery. Naturally, when the numbers Brown had predicted prior to the pull were revealed, he had won (though of course he had neglected to purchase a ticket).

Before you buy into Brown's method, it's important to note that the man is admittedly a “magician” and that he himself called his win “a trick.” Skeptics of the show have already come up with dozens of plausible ways that the results were fixed (split screen trickery, biased machines, time delays, LCD displays, etc). We'll support an intuition-based gambling strategy when Brown actually wins the lottery. In the meantime, you're as likely to win by picking your lucky numbers and praying.

 


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