Friday, February 27, 2009

Tim Harford with a fantastic takedown

of state lotteries:

You seem to have a rather charming scenario in mind, with you playing the role of a little lost child, and the lottery machine playing the role of parent, diligently searching for you. This is called a “rendezvous problem”, and, in general, you would be better off staying where you are and letting the lottery machine find you.

With almost 14 million combinations to try, this would take, on average, seven million attempts – about 67,000 years if you play twice a week. Success would be guaranteed after 135,000 years. If you choose your numbers at random, however, success is never guaranteed, and tame mathematicians tell me that the average time to strike lucky is also longer – perhaps 100,000 years or so.


In case you are not a long-time reader, I will repeat my advice as to how to enjoy the thrill of the lottery without the fool’s bet. Choose your numbers, but don’t buy a ticket. You’ll win almost every week – the fear that your number might actually come up is an adrenaline rush to beat them all.

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