Fuzzy math knows no borders

Published 10:57 pm Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I was an amazingly average math student, but I know that if a quarter lands on heads on the first flip, or even 100 straight times, the chances of it coming up tails next time is still only 50 percent.

With that caveat, here’s something that makes no sense.

On Sept. 6 and 10, Bulgaria’s national lottery drew the exact same numbers — 4, 15, 23, 24, 35 and 42 — for its “pick six” or “mega thousands” or whatever the Bulgarian translation works out to.

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Very, very strange, to be sure. Even if this wasn’t in eastern Europe, it would’ve been normal to suspect shenanigans, corruption or worse. The Bulgarian government inspected the draw, not that that should quell any of the questions, but nothing wrong or fraudulent was found, and apparently everything in Bulgaria rolls on, at least according to Reuters and the AP.

Reuters quotes mathematician Michail Konstantinov saying the chance of the same six numbers being drawn two consecutive times was one in more than four million. A spokesperson for the lottery said it was the first time it had happened in 52 years of the Bulgarian lottery.

Fair enough. Sometimes a pitcher just called up from double-A throws a no-hitter in his first game in the bigs. Sometimes a 35-handicapper banks in a hole-in-one from 140 yards with a shanked 3-wood off the porta-potty.

Here’s the thing: In the first drawing of 4-15-23-24-35-42, no one won the top prize. In the second drawing, 18 people guessed all six numbers right. Sure, the Bulgarian government and lottery investigated everything, and it came out just fine, but I think they should have another go at it.

Then again, I think the Bulgarian government’s making out just fine with its lottery system. Plenty of bureaucrats and politicians are comfortable with it and would like to have this little coincidence, which probably was just a coincidence, remain just that and move on with whatever’s not so accidental.

Why? Because each of the 18 winners won $7,700 each. So, the jackpot for picking six numbers right was $138,600.

Tuesday’s Mega Millions jackpot was $62 million, and it’s often well into the hundreds of millions. Wednesday’s Illinois Lottery’s Lotto, which is six numbers, was for a $3.5 million first prize. The Virginia Lottery’s Cash 5 is for $100,000.

There’s certainly a lot lost in cultural differences, but the Bulgarian people are clearly getting cheated. Combine Eastern Europe and lotteries and I suppose that should come as no surprise.