How Not to Win the Powerball Lottery

Photo (cc) by St_A_Sh

With the Powerball lottery reaching $500 million for tonight’s drawing, you’d expect the network news to give it some airtime. But if you see stories promoting “experts” who claim to be able to help you find the winning numbers, change the channel.

Several months ago in a post called Can You Improve Your Lottery Odds?, I interviewed the guy getting a lot of network exposure: Richard Lustig. Here’s another look at that video – check it out, then read on…

The problem isn’t Lustig

As I hope you gathered from that video, what Richard Lustig is promising in his book and in his interviews isn’t deliverable. Random numbers are, by definition, random. There’s no system that can help you pick lottery numbers.

Lustig isn’t rare. There are plenty of people in the world offering things they can’t deliver, from communicating with the dead to buying houses for $100. But at least these people have an excuse: They’re making money.

But what excuse does a network news program have to build the credibility of someone like Lustig by providing him airtime every time the lottery builds? Any serious journalist should be shredding this guy, not giving him free publicity.

Here’s an excerpt from a Nov. 26 article from Fox News called Powerball Jackpot Hits $425 Million: Author Richard Lustig Gives Tips on Improving Your Chances of Winning.

If you’re a regular player, he (Lustig) offers that you should never play quick picks, rather you should always play the same set of numbers to maximize the chance that you’ll win. And for a drawing like this week’s Powerball, always see if you can pool money with a large group of people to increase your chances.

Let’s do something Fox couldn’t be bothered to do – a little math. Don’t worry if you don’t have an MBA; an elementary school education will suffice.

1. You should never play quick picks: According to the Powerball website, the odds of winning the jackpot are 1 in 175,223,510. You win by picking six random numbers. What difference could it possibly make whether you pick them or a computer does? Answer: none whatsoever.

2. You should always play the same set of numbers: As Lustig told me when I interviewed him, his logic is that once a number wins, it can’t come up again. Therefore you keep playing the same set of numbers until it wins, then discard it. The problem with this argument? It’s hogwash. Lotteries don’t retire winning numbers. Therefore the odds of the same numbers coming up again are the same as the odds of any other set of random numbers coming up: 1 in 175,223,510.

3. Pool money with a large group of people to increase your chances: If you buy one ticket, you have 1 chance in 175,223,510 to win. If you pool your bet with nine other people, you have 10 chances in 175,223,510. And if you win, you’ll split the pot 10 ways. Which obviously means you’ll win the same amount either way; pooling your bet has no effect.

And it’s not just Fox. The Today Show just featured Lustig in this news story yesterday. Here’s his bite they put on national news…

It doesn’t matter how you pick your numbers. What matters is what you do with that set of numbers after they’re chosen. I teach people how to research that set of numbers to find out if it’s a good set of numbers. And if it is, you play it. And you play it all the time.

Put those sentences together, and what do you have? Nothing. It’s nonsense. But that didn’t keep NBC Nightly News from putting him on and showing his book just last night.

Is this really what we should expect from journalists?

People like Richard Lustig, the psychic friends network, and those who claim to communicate with the dead are always going to get face time somewhere on TV. But it shouldn’t be on network news.

If they’re going to interview someone like Lustig at all, a true journalist would do what we did: shred his argument with common sense, or simply interview a statistics professor: we found one willing to go on camera in less than 15 minutes.

What these networks are doing isn’t journalism, it’s infomercial.

The bottom line

While playing any game with odds this long isn’t the smartest thing to do with $2, if you can afford it, there’s nothing wrong with a little excitement. I’ve paid more to get less.

But don’t think for a minute there’s anyone out there who will increase your odds. The only way to increase your lottery odds is to buy more tickets. Buying 10 tickets means your odds improve from 1 in 175,223,510 to a mere 10 in 175,223,510.

Want to win at the lottery? Write a book claiming to know the lottery “secret,” then get network news to help you promote it.

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