Editorial – Just how tall are your lottery odds?

Published 1:17 am Saturday, August 6, 2022

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Perhaps you bought a ticket last month when the Mega Millions lottery jackpot exceeded $1 billion. If you did and, like millions of others, lost, perhaps some consolation is that public education was a winner from the Mega frenzy.

During the 29 drawings of the jackpot run that began in April and ended with the July 29 drawing, sales of Mega Millions tickets in Virginia generated an estimated $30.2 million in profit, lottery officials say. By law, all of that profit goes to K-12 public schools. So there’s that.

If you had high hopes of winning, Virginia Tech professor J.P. Morgan, a statistics expert, is happy to throw some cold water on your dreams, putting the astronomical chance of winning the jackpot stands at 1 in 302,575,350. 

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“Now, 303 million seems like a pretty big number, but still, it can be hard to think about,” Morgan said. “What does one chance in 303 million really mean?”

He illustrated the tall odds in two effective ways.

  • $5 bills. “Suppose you travel to the equator and when you arrive, you lay a $5 bill on the ground, right along the equatorial line,” Morgan said. “Then you lay down another, then another, and so on, end-to-end, until you go all around the earth and come back to your starting point. When you finish, someone will randomly select exactly one of those $5 bills. It is your job to guess which one. If you are right, you get to keep all of the $5 bills! Your chance of a successful guess is just a little bit better than that of winning the Mega Millions jackpot. The amount you will win if correct is about $1.3 billion, just a little more than last month’s Mega Millions lottery.”
  • 575 years. “Suppose it takes you one minute to fill out a Mega Millions entry form and pay to enter. Do this every minute, non-stop, 24 hours a day, until you have entered every possible combination. It will take you 575 years to enter them all.”

Interested in upping your odds ever so slightly?

“Try to play a number combination that not many other people will play,” Morgan said. “That way, should by some fantastic improbability you win, the pot will not be divided among very many people. That is the only strategy that you can invoke to maximize your winnings. Nothing you can do will increase your chance of winning, but you can try to avoid a split pot.”

While state lottery officials — and public school leaders — probably won’t like it, Morgan offered even better advice: “Perhaps the best way to play Mega Millions is to play in your imagination. Write down your number combination on a piece of paper, then put it in an envelope with a $2 bill. When the drawing is made, open your envelope. Your combination will not match the winning combination, but you will have $2! That’s two dollars more than if you had actually played. Play imaginary Mega Millions twice a week for a year and you will have ‘won’ $208! Use it to take your true love out to a nice dinner and count yourself the real winner.”