The Sobering Odds Of Winning The Lottery Jackpot

Mar 29, 2012

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

More than half a billion dollars, billion with a B, could be yours if you have a ticket for Friday night's Mega Millions Lottery. Again, that's $540 million. It's believed to be the largest lottery jackpot ever anywhere. And all that's standing between you and that prize is, first of all, a ticket. You have to buy one. And second, the odds. This is a littler harder.

Joining us now from Atlanta, Georgia is Aaron Abrams. He's a mathematician at Emory University. And a couple of years ago, he wrote an article in American Mathematical Monthly called "Finding Good Bets In The Lottery And Why You Shouldn't Take Them." Welcome to the program.

AARON ABRAMS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And why shouldn't you bet on the lottery - half a billion dollars?

ABRAMS: Well, because the odds are against you winning.

SIEGEL: The odds are always against you winning. How bad are the odds against you winning?

ABRAMS: Well, the odds are about one in 175 million. So, that means that you're about 100 times more likely to die of a flesh-eating bacteria than you are to win the lottery.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: It's a lot less fun, also.

ABRAMS: I don't think there's a lottery for that.

SIEGEL: But when the jackpot gets this big, I assume you start hearing from otherwise intelligent people that it's obviously time to buy lottery tickets.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ABRAMS: Yes. That's right because, somehow, the idea is that if the payout is good enough, then it's worth the risk.

SIEGEL: Well, there is a certain logic to that.

ABRAMS: There is a certain logic to that. Unfortunately, no matter what you do, you can't improve your odds and the risk is still too great to make it a sound economic investment.

SIEGEL: Well, what about, say, buying five or 10 tickets instead of just one? That improves your chance.

ABRAMS: Buying five or 10 tickets does improve your chance. That's true. If you were to buy one of every single possible ticket - if you were to buy 175 million tickets, all of them different, then you could guarantee that you would win because whatever numbers come up, you've got that ticket.

SIEGEL: It's a plan.

ABRAMS: It's a plan. Unfortunately, someone else could do this also. And as soon as you have to share the jackpot, it becomes less of an enticing plan.

SIEGEL: You and a colleague once offered, I gather, some guidance as to - if you're going to take the foolish step of playing the lottery to begin with, some numbers that you might play that might be better ideas than other numbers to play.

ABRAMS: The only trick there is that you can't increase your odds of winning. But if you do win, you can increase the odds that you're the only one who wins. In other words, you don't have to share the jackpot. And the way to do that is to pick uncommon numbers.

SIEGEL: What's an uncommon number, though?

ABRAMS: Many people tend to pick birthdays, favorite numbers, and these tend to be small. The numbers that you can pick for Mega Millions go as high as 56. But, of course, dates only go as high as 31. People tend to pick odd numbers more than even numbers. So, even numbers larger than 31 are less common. But, again, whatever strategy you pick for choosing your numbers doesn't increase your odds of winning.

SIEGEL: But I gather that there actually are some lotteries where the odds are at least more in your favor than in, say, Mega Millions.

ABRAMS: Every now and then, there's a lottery that has somewhat decent odds. What it takes to have decent odds is a relatively large jackpot, which this one certainly has. The second, a relatively small number of tickets to be sold, which this doesn't have. There are unbelievably many tickets being sold for this lottery.

SIEGEL: There is an old saying, if you don't play, you can't win.

ABRAMS: Well, that's true. It's also true that, if you do play...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: You also can't win.

ABRAMS: Most likely, most likely. Someone will eventually win. And one thing that we noticed is that we never expected the jackpot to get this large, ever. It should happen about once every 200 years. And, of course, Mega Millions has only been around for a few years. So, this is a rare event, but rare events do happen.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Abrams, thanks for talking with us about it.

ABRAMS: Thanks very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Aaron Abrams, a mathematician at Emory University in Atlanta, just down the road from where the winning numbers will be picked in Friday's Mega Millions lottery.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED continues in a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.