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'Random is random': A mathematician's view on lotteries, betting and why it's best to just have a little fun

Mega Million Jackpot
Posted at 7:10 PM, Jan 11, 2023

After weeks without a winner, it was a familiar story with national lotteries: reports flew at us cheering that the Mega Millions jackpot had soared to over $1 billion. That had eager players purchasing tickets at convenience stores and other lottery retailers, wanting to get in on a little action.

Statistically, though, they were buying in on a little piece of the hope of winning, more than the actual chance they would.

The odds of winning after Tuesday night's drawing were 1 in 302.6 million. The chance of winning was ridiculously slim, with the odds more at odds with the player than the game. By a lot.

As Tim Chartier, a professor of mathematics and computer science at Davidson College in North Carolina put it, "It's possible, but it's improbable."

Chartier is an expert on sports analytics, numerical linear algebra and is a distinguished visiting professor at theNational Museum of Mathematics.

Chartier and other experts on the numbers agree, it's a game, and there will be a winner. But, is it worth an investment of your time and money to increase your chances?

"It's clearly possible to win," Chartier said.

But, trying to win by picking your favorite numbers or buying more tickets isn't going to really help.

As the Associated Press reported, Mega Millions is played in 45 states, and Washington, D.C., along with the U.S. Virgin Islands. All of those players equal more players to have to share the winnings with.

Five state, including Alabama, Alaska, Nevada, Hawaii and Utah, do not have a lottery. So players from those states tend to cross state lines to play.

Chris England, a legislator in Alabama said, “I’m pretty sure the people of Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia appreciate all of our contributions to their roads, bridges, education system and many other things they spend that money on.”

It's one of the reasons lotteries persist. Payouts come after taxes, and those tax proceeds are meant to pay for necessities like infrastructure. called the chances of winning the lottery "absurdly small."

If a player plays the Powerball lottery, they'll need to match five numbers plus the Powerball. The odds have been at 1 in 292, 201, 338. If a player buys two tickets instead of just one, the odds go up to 2 in 292,201,338.

So not buy much, and possibly not worth the extra quarters to play multiple tickets. Again, the odds of winning are: absurdly small.

It's arguable that it does not help to buy more tickets.

"You're going from highly improbable to highly improbable," Chartier said.

He says to look at it this way: as jackpots grow and grow, there will be more players because of all the attention on the game. You don't have less of a chance of winning, you just have more of a chance that you'll have to share the jackpot with other people.

"Random means random," Chartier said. The numbered balls come up as they come up in the case of televised lottery drawings.

So, buying less tickets and having the machine choose the numbers for you at random is probably the way to go for most people. It's better to focus on being a part of the action and having fun with the game, over trying to figure out a way to increase your chances of hitting the jackpot.

The act of going into the store, buying the ticket and watching the drawing is arguably what it's all about. Many see getting your hopes up about finding that winning set of numbers to nab the jackpot a fools game.

Are there better games than others?

"I don't know quite how to answer that," Chartier said. It all comes down to statistics and probability and so much of it is random and out of our control, he explained.

If you look at a casino, Craps is in the house's favor, but not by much, according to Chartier.

When it comes to the lottery, Powerball has more probability built into the game for a win than Mega Millions, he said, but "hardly by much."

With Powerball, it's a little more probable, and with Mega Millions it's a little less probable.

Chariter said he likes the way lotteries are constructed in the U.S. in that players have been shown to win as the jackpot gets to the billion dollar mark. In that way, they seem to distribute the money more frequently.

When gaming enthusiasts go to a casino, they should see it as entertainment and keep to only a set amount of money that is comfortable for them when playing. Players should stop once they hit that mark. The same goes for playing the lottery.

If you're ahead at a casino, which can frequently happen, put that money aside and don't play it. Just save it. Have fun, and don't take it too seriously. Know when to quit and walk away.

Remember, even with March Madness brackets and other games, "random means random," according to Chartier.

There will be an element of randomness where you can't predict the outcome.

Chartier says, "The state of numbers highlights how exciting life is."

"There's a part of life that transcends numbers." he said. "You can't predict the world through numbers."