A game of fat chance
Three lucky ducks won the recent jackpot worth half a billion dollars. I bought a ticket and didn’t sleep very well since I couldn’t figure out when I’d have the time to go pick up the giant check if I won. The odds of winning were 1 in 176 million, and I matched exactly none of the numbers.
That made me wonder if we as humans understand what 1 in 176 million really means. To help the mathematically challenged, here’s a lottery game where your chances are much more obvious:
In my new game, $1 gets you a number between 1 and 176,000,000 - and that many ping-pong balls are placed in a rotating drum.
Clearly, 176 million is a big number. If you began counting breaths the day you were born, you’d reach 176 million in the third year of your Associates degree. If you start counting seconds right now, and do it for eight hours per day with no days off, you’ll reach 176 million seconds into the year 2029.
The reason my single number lottery idea won’t catch on is because it wouldn’t be fun. People would quickly see they have no legitimate chance of winning.
With the current games though, you can get two numbers right and see a glimmer of hope. You get three numbers right and win $2 to buy more tickets. You were so close that time. You’ve got the hang of it now and might win next week.
But with my game, the first time you see that your number was off by 34 million or so, you’ll stop playing. “This is ridiculous,” you’ll say, “I have almost no chance of winning.”
You’ll be right of course but, oddly, your chances are exactly the same as becoming the next Mega-Millions retiree by guessing five numbers between 1 and 55.
Most jurisdictions outlaw gambling because of the differing levels of intelligence among their people. Governments used to know that the smart prey on the stupid though games of chance, and sought to protect the weak. As Americans, we generally approve of economic predation as long as it’s called a payday loan or credit default swap, but when the guy down the block bets $20 that you can’t find the red queen, it’s suddenly a crime.
So states don’t run a one-number game because no one would play, right? To be successful, they have to make you think you have a chance.
My problem isn’t with gambling per se, it’s with the hypocrisy of a state-owned game designed to fool the customers. The lottery director has a job to do, I get that, and lottery is a business I know, but should a state really see its people as rubes to exploit?
According to their website, the lottery’s mission is to “Maximize revenue for Colorado residents.” Well, aren’t the players Colorado residents? Do the players who lose get their revenue maximized and, if so, how exactly?
The proceeds do in fact benefit some of us, but how many people who play lottery with their rent money are also mountain bikers?
I think we should keep Colorado’s lottery business but make the odds more understandable. Then Coloradans with millions stuffed in a Ragu jar can buy open space and lottery tickets, while residents without maximized revenue can save their dollars for something they can really use.