March 28, 2012


Daddy loved to buy lotto tickets.

Typically, I do not. But, today, after seeing that the MegaMillions jackpot had crested $500M, and realizing it was the type of hype that Daddy would definitely have enjoyed, I had to join the fun.

I so rarely take part in the collective pop culture of my community, that when I can, it's extra fun! Plus, there are just some things that feel like Daddy is with me, and a big lotto jackpot is one of them. $1 is nothing compared to feeling like he's right here.

When I asked if they were selling the "big lottery tickets" (because I only barely know what's going on), the clerk pointed to the sign behind him listing the various jackpots, sighed, and said, wearily

MegaMillions. It's too big. But good luck.

I have no idea what that means. I presume it's some hard won convenience store clerk wisdom?

Conveniently, before I could ponder that one too long, the owner of the store sent us home with a complimentary bottle of wine from one of the distributors that's trying to get their business.

Can you tell us if this is good? Would you buy it for $7.99?

Um, yes...We can be that kind of hero. (Much to my surprise, the Camelot was lovely and enjoyable (not remotely the over-oaked, super sugary, or terrible $8 chard I feared) and we actually will be happy to buy it for $7.99).

Getting back on track, though, let's be honest -- I come by my gambling honestly. Until she was hospitalized, after Grampa Jack passed away, Gramma took the bus to Reno to play slots every other weekend (and she'd win, all the time!). Daddy, of course, loved his lotto -- every time I see a ticket, I can't help but think of him and the scattered faded tickets that we kept finding when it came time to let his belongings go. Then there was Brother, who spent 25% of his income on lottery tickets the first month he lived with us after the hospital and with whom I can go to the Indian Casino the day after Christmas and play a poker tournament and blackjack. My mom has recently discovered craps & she swears it is the greatest thing ever -- I'd make fun of her, but I actually agree.

And, of course, the trip to the Indian Casino for Gran's 80th Birthday is the ultimate example.

So yeah, while I normally don't partake, tonight, I bought a single $1 lotto ticket for MegaMillions. The idea that I'm part of something bigger than me makes the $1 worth it. The fun of the collective game. All my ancestors enjoyed it. Who am I to say no?

The math, however, is less cool.

56 (1st number) * 55 (2nd number) * 54 (3rd number) * 53 (4th number) * 52 (5th number) * 46 (Mega!) = 21,085,384,320.

[Update: this is too conservative, actual odds are 1 in 175M because the order of the balls doesn't matter and there are 120 different ways to order 5 unique balls. That's what I get for thinking I remembered how to do probabilities without looking up the formulas.]

The population of the U.S. is roughly 313,265,000.

So, if every single person in the U.S. bought 68 tickets and they were all unique, one person would be guaranteed to win the big jackpot. [Update: thanks to the lack of an order requirement, if everyone bought a unique ticket, it would only take 175M purchasers to guarantee a jackpot winner]

Hmmm.... I don't love those odds.

But I do love being part of the fun.

Yay! Fun!

[UPDATE: As Matt pointed out, it doesn't matter what order the balls are drawn, so my original math was too conservative.

The actual odds are the 1 in 175,711,536 (my original calculation divided by 5*4*3*2*1, or 5!, the number of possible ways to order the 5 drawn balls before the mega).

So, it is likely we will have a jackpot split 8 or 9 ways given the expected sales of 1.5B tickets before the drawing.]


Arvay said...

Want to participate in the Nenana Ice Classic? Technically, only Alaska residents can play. But give me your guess, and if I win on it, I'll split it with you 50/50. :)

bt said...

I'm in!

Matt Ginzton said...

The odds are better than what you calculated -- 120, or 5!, times better, because it doesn't matter what order you pick those 5 numbers in. (Or:

So there are about 175 million unique tickets, 1 of which is the winner.

The problem with this is, then, that the cost of buying all the tickets is less than the jackpot. You're guaranteed to come out ahead if you just borrow/pool up the money and buy all the tickets! Unless... someone else does the same thing.

In fact, that's my guess about what the clerk meant by "it's too big" -- once the jackpot gets huge, which is a fuzzy boundary say somewhere around that $175 million magic number, there are both psychological and mathematical reasons for more people to buy tickets, the jackpot keeps getting bigger if nobody wins it, but it's also more likely that someone or multiple someones will win it, and the jackpot gets split.

Biting Tongue said...

@Matt -- thanks.

I'd seen the numbers in the press and had been reminding myself to figure out where the disparity was coming from, but I've been too busy.

See... I knew that clerk had some hard-won wisdom!