Can You Improve Your Lottery Odds?

Photo (cc) by Montage Communications

(Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Money Talks News on July 25, 2012. We sometimes pull it out and dust it off whenever the Powerball swells and the subject of this story, Richard Lustig, starts the interview circuit again.)

Reporters constantly get pitches from all manner of people and companies wanting to be the subject of a news story. They hire publicists who write press releases designed to convince people like us to tell their story and get them publicity – and thus sell more books, apps, or whatever they’re hoping to market.

Over the last several months, I’ve received repeated pitches from a publicist promoting a guy who says he can increase your odds of winning the lottery. Here’s some of the press release I recently received.

PowerBall Drawing Wednesday up to $240 Million; 7 Time Lottery Game Grand Prize Winner has Tip

With the economy continuing to struggle, many people are looking for a miracle to overcome their financial challenges, and playing the lottery just might be safer than playing the stock market right now…especially with this Wednesday’s multi-state Powerball Lottery heading for $240 million, giving U.S. lottery players a new big jackpot to play for! When major media outlets like Good Morning America, CNN, Fox, The New York Post, MSNBC and more want insight on how to increase your chances of winning, they turn to 7 time lottery game grand prize winner Richard Lustig.

Richard will be playing Powerball Wednesday, and his chances to win are better than most. Why? Lustig has developed a method for increasing your chances of winning the lottery that has given him seven lottery game grand prizes and dozens of smaller wins, netting millions in winnings. Richard is outspoken that his method really works, and that “luck has nothing to do with it.”

Really? The lottery is safer than playing the stock market? Network news shows turn to this guy when they want to increase their chances of winning?

I’ve been doing consumer news for more than 20 years, so silly stuff like systems to increase your odds of picking random numbers is nothing new. What’s unusual about this story, however, is that this guy isn’t promoting his product with a late-night infomercial. He’s sending press releases like the one above to real journalists. Even stranger – they’re biting.

In a story called How One Man Became a Serial Lottery Winner, ABC News has both print and video about Lustig. They say stuff like…

After developing the method over the years and selling thousands of copies of his report, Lustig decided to write a 40-page book explaining his formula. The game of chance, or what some call luck, is what Lustig addresses in his book currently ranked #3 on Amazon’s self-help book list.

But did anyone in this network news organization think to read the book or question Lustig’s “formula”? Did they even ask him about the method he “developed over the years”? Apparently not. And while saying in the first paragraph that Lustig has “won the grand prize seven times,” they don’t reveal the only statistic that would make that meaningful: How much money he spent playing.

The number of times anyone wins anything is irrelevant unless you also know the amount they’ve lost. Since Lustig didn’t say and ABC didn’t ask, this story is meaningless.

In Want to Win the Lottery? This Guy Has a System, CNBC hops on the bandwagon…

Lustig didn’t detail much of his system to CNBC – that’s in his book – but he did give a few tips for those who want to rely on more than a little bit of luck: Avoid Quick-Pick lottery cards where the numbers are pre-selected. Buy at least 10 tickets. Play in lottery pools…

So here’s another news network that served up major publicity to some guy claiming to have a system to win the lottery without knowing what his “system” is, or even reading his book. I read the free copy furnished by his publicist – it takes less than 45 minutes. Why didn’t they?

In addition, CNBC prints “tips” like, “avoid Quick-Pick lottery cards” without stopping to think. Whether you pick a number or a machine does, the odds are the same. In lotteries like PowerBall, those odds are up to 1 in 200,000,000. Suggesting you can change those odds is nonsense.

The secrets revealed!

Lustig’s brochure-sized book does offer advice that makes sense. For example, retaining losing lottery tickets to offset potentially taxable wins. This is true in all forms of gambling: You can’t deduct losses, but you can use losses to offset gains, thus reducing your tax liability in the unlikely event you win more than you lose in a given year.

The other sensible thing Lustig’s book suggests is about second-chance drawings. Some lottery games allow you to send in losing tickets as entries for drawings for trips and other prizes. Lustig suggests you do so.

But when it comes to helping you pick random numbers, his logic isn’t logical.

Lustig’s “system” is to always play the same numbers, then stop playing them if they win, because the same numbers never win twice. That’s pretty much it – and it’s wrong. The odds of any set of random numbers coming up again are the same as they were the first time. That’s why they call them random.

Interesting aside: I interviewed a statistics professor for the TV version of this story, and he did have a suggestion for those playing games like Powerball that Lustig didn’t offer. It was to select numbers higher than 31. While that won’t increase your odds of winning, at least if you do win, you’re less likely to split the pot with others. That’s because so many people play their birthdays.

Who’s more foolish: buyers of this book, or network news?

My brief interview with Richard Lustig, done for the video version of this story, devolved into a hostile exchange. As I was trying to explain that his system for picking winning lottery numbers makes no mathematical sense, he shot back with, “What do you think I am, an idiot?”

I responded, “You’re no idiot, Richard – you’re making money selling a $40 book with nonsensical advice. It’s the people who buy it that are idiots.”

In retrospect, however, there’s one group of people who are more foolish than either Richard Lustig or his readers: those in the news business offering legitimacy to people like him while at the same time calling themselves journalists.

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