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Scratch these off your Christmas shopping list

December 17, 2015
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By Diane Mar-Nicolle

Last minute Christmas shoppers are a boon to the lottery business. Who can resist buying a $2 stocking stuffer that could result in millions for the recipient?

Tom Loughin can.

Loughin, chair of SFU’s Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science says, “While the draws are as random as they can be, the whole game is rigged against the player. The odds and payoffs are such that, on average, a person who plays consistently is merely piling up bigger and bigger losses.”

In fact, he cautions that, “The odds of winning the jackpot are so bad that, if you played one entry every week, you'd need to live to be over 186,000 years old, just to have half a chance of ever winning it, and you'd have spent over $29M, so probably not worth it.”

And if you think your special system of choosing numbers will beat the house, think again. Loughin warns there is absolutely no way to increase your chances of winning. 

“The game is completely random, and you can't beat randomness under any circumstances; you only win by getting lucky and you can’t orchestrate luck.”

Based on Loughin’s data on 649 draws, the most popular times for people to buy lottery tickets are when the jackpot gets disproportionately large, and at Christmas. These two events compel more people to buy tickets—and more players equals potentially smaller major prizes, because they are split equally among all winners.

“Think of 12 people sharing a pumpkin pie and how small their slice would be. Now think of 24 people sharing that same pie and what their slice would look like,” says Loughin.

Sadly, his data on scratch cards are just as discouraging.

For example, BC Lottery Corporation’s “Holiday Gift Pack” game lists the top prize as $150,000. The fine print on the $20 card notes that the chances of winning this prize are 1 in 125,000.

Loughin’s mathematical formula shows that “if you purchased every single scratch card in that series, you would still lose money”.

He explains that by calculating the odds of the jackpot and all of the lesser prizes being offered, you can calculate how much the “expected value” of each card you purchased would bring in. Remember, you have theoretically purchased every single scratch card in this series and will therefore win every prize offered. He calculates that each card would bring in an expected value of $13.55, which is far below the $20 price you paid for it and therefore, a losing proposition.

 “Except for sheer luck, you cannot beat the house when it comes to lottery tickets, scratch cards and casinos,” he says.

“The game is rigged so that you can have a little bit of luck often enough that it might make you think you're coming out ahead and get you to keep playing, but in the long run almost everyone who plays the game comes out on the bottom. “

Not surprisingly, Loughin practices what he preaches. He doesn’t gamble or buy lottery tickets.