As slogans go, “it could be you” is a pretty good one – because it’s absolutely true. Anyone can pick six numbers, hand over their money and buy a winning lottery ticket.
It’s now 20 years since the National Lottery launched. Lotto dosh can still be life changing money, with the highest ever jackpot an unbeaten £42,008,610. It’s no wonder 32 million people still plop down their two quid for a go on the Lotto every week. Winning that money though, that’s a rare thing indeed. How can you join the 3,400 players who’ve done it so far?
Odds and Probability
When you choose your lottery numbers, the odds are convincingly stacked against you.
The first number you choose in the UK lottery has six chances out of forty nine of being the right one. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Problem is, as you pick more numbers, the odds get worse. The second number you pick has a five in forty eight chance of being in right. The third ball has a four in forty seven chance of being right, and so on.
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That’s translates to a 43.6% chance that you won’t be able to pick a single winning number. Overall your odds of picking the right numbers for the lottery are 1 in 13,983,816.
Let’s repeat that in words so that it sinks in. The odds are one in thirteen million, nine hundred and eight three thousand, eight hundred and sixteen.
The aptly named James Clewett, a physicist who has worked with the Mathematical Research Sciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley demonstrates the maths behind these stats in this video from the Numberphile series, just prove that we’re not making all this up:
Some people put their faith in statistical systems, studying how many times a category of numbers appear. It’s natural to assume this will work, because there are plenty of things we bet on where it actually does. In sports betting, you can statistically chart the performance of a player over a season. You can track the conditions that are most favourable to a specific horse. You can tell if a team is on form or not.
Mathematician Renato Gianella reckons he’s studied enough lottery systems around the world to predict similar patterns; numbers that turn up more frequently than others and in specific sequences. He’s turned his scholarly research into an online number picking system called LotoRainbow.
His system colour codes batches of numbers and gives you similarly colour coded templates that enable you to pick your own systematic sequence.
We remain sceptical. Statistics may show results that look like patterns, but those patterns are as randomly generated as the lottery numbers themselves.
By the same token, there’s no actual harm in using LotoRainbow’s template to choose your numbers. It’s just as good as any other method. The odds remain the same.
Another “system” people use is to repeat the same set of numbers every week in an attempt to beat the odds. The intuition is that a sequence of numbers that is similar must appear eventually. Unfortunately, those people are wrong.
The thing about odds is that they are constant. For example, if you flip a coin you will get heads or tails. If you flip it again, you will get heads or tails. The chances are always 50/50.
“If you get five heads in a row, it does not mean the next time it is more likely to be tails,” says Dr. John Haigh emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Sussex, “The odds are still 50/50”.
In the same way, the odds of choosing a sequence of six correct numbers out of forty nine will always be 1 in 13,983,816.
Hack the Odds
Now that we’ve crushed your dreams with the knowledge that the odds of picking six numbers to win the lottery are ludicrously high, there is a way to improve your chances. You hack the odds.
All the genuine tips we’ve been able to glean from experts do exactly that in one form or another. The first method is one that many lottery players already, instinctively indulge in. And we know because we’ve stood behind them in the queue while they’re doing it. The answer is to buy more tickets.
“The only way to increase your chances of winning a lottery is to increase your expected loss at the same time,” says David Joyce, Professor of Mathematics at Clarke University, Massachusetts.
“You can buy more tickets to increase the probability of winning at least once,” says Joyce, “But that also increases the probability that you’ll lose a lot, too.”
Every time you choose a new set of numbers, you increase your odds of winning. Choose one set of numbers and you have 1 in 13,983,816 chance of walking away with the jackpot. Select two sets of numbers and the odds reduce to 1 in 6,991,908.
Still, those odds are pretty high. You have more chance of being struck by lightning.
Buy More Tickets
In theory you could change your odds of winning the lottery by buying every ticket… While you LOL yourself silly at the stupidity of that idea, consider this; it’s already been done. At least twice.
In 1992 accountant Stefan Klincewicz formed a syndicate to win the Irish lottery, with the intention to strike when the pot grew sufficiently large enough to make the sting pay. Sure enough, the jackpot hit 2.2 million Irish pounds and Klincewicz’s investors began systematically buying up every numeric combination they could. A few days before the draw Irish lottery chiefs noticed the dramatic upturn in ticket sales and shut down machines across the country.
It was too late though – the 28 strong syndicate had spent 900,000 Irish pounds on 80% of the draw’s possible combinations. They won the pot.
The Irish lottery had a couple of special characteristics that made it more vulnerable to this kind of attack than other lotteries. A 100 pound prize for matching four numbers meant that the syndicate was able to rake in an additional 400,000 Irish pounds in secondary prizes on top of the jackpot.
While such an escapade may be difficult to repeat, there’s something we can learn and earn from this; syndicates win the lottery a lot. When you club together with friends you have more buying power. The return may be smaller, but it can still be enough to jack in your job.
Win More Money
Are there any genuine ways to win the lottery without spending more money? Oh yes. Because people are a weird bunch who believe whatever you tell them – you can take advantage. Science boffins say that the best way to choose your numbers is – wait for it – entirely at random.
When you use a system, you’re more likely to pick the same numbers as other people. That means, if you do win with your numbers, you might not be the only one.
“If you pick the least popular numbers and win, then you will probably share your jackpot with fewer people,” Dr John Haigh recently told the Telegraph.
You can even take this a step further, turning the superstitions of others to more advantage. Because people tend to use dates when picking their numbers, there are certain clusters that crop up in other people’s systems all the time. The numbers one to twelve are popular because they correspond to the months of the year. The number nineteen is a frequent choice for a similar reason – because people often put the year they were born into their system. For everyone old enough to do the lottery, that’s 19-something…
And here’s one more thing. Numbers over 31 are neglected by lottery players who rely on dates, because there are a maximum of 31 days in the month.
Knowing this may not help you choose a winning set of numbers, but it may help you win big if you do.
The Utility of Money
Our final words on winning big are more philosophical. Peter Flom, an independent statistical consultant, points out that taking part in the lottery in a modest way is a return in itself
“The utility of money is not linear,” says Flom, “For many people, the loss of (say) $10 per week is inconsequential – while the gain of many millions is consequential.”
In other words, if you get pleasure from a regular, inconsequential investment, it’s good for you in the long run. You help the arts and funding of culture in this country. If you’re lucky, you might win a few extra quid every now and then. If you’re amazingly fortunate, you could win millions.
“If someone spends a pound a week playing the lottery and for that pound a week they’re getting hope, excitement and a Saturday night buzz, I think that’s great value,” says James Clewett, “If I hear of somebody spending 10, 20 quid a week on lottery tickets – stop! Please stop!”