Truckloads of Lotto-Luck Losers
PICTURE 35 football stadiums, each about the size of the Rose Bowl, each filled to its capacity of 100,000 fans. Each seat has a number. One jackpot winner will be selected at random from all 3,500,000 numbers.
Now imagine the advertis ing blitz that caused you to buy a seat for this raffle. On television you saw the last happy winner vacationing in the tropics. Celebrities sang ''it could happen to you,'' if you entered. Maybe you heard people encouraging you to buy a seat with your ''lucky number'' - your Social Security number, street address, or birthday. You were encouraged to hope, ''Maybe it will be me.''
After the drawing, all of us lost - well, all but one of us. All the people in all the seats in all the rows in all those huge stadiums lost, with one exception. After the hype, hyperbole, and hope, there is nothing for 3,499,999 people. The promoters have our raffle fee, and we have nothing.
The truth is that the promoters teased our desire to win, and we bit. Never mind the astronomical odds against us: 3,499,999 to 1. Those friendly celebrities and happy winners seemed real. This fictitious raffle is a close cousin to Lotto, a lottery game in many states around the country. In Lotto, we have the extremely remote possibility of winning a huge amount and the likely outcome of no win.
The probability of winning the Oregon Megabucks Lottery is about 1 in 3,500,000. Sound familiar? The odds of winning vary around the country. Many lotteries offer odds between 1 in a million and 1 in 13 million. So the chances of winning in these states vary from one person in 10 football stadiums to one person in 130 football stadiums.
The similarity between the fictitious raffle and Lotto extends beyond the remote chance of a win and the high probability of loss. How about the promotions? I have no doubt that many desperate people spend money on these games because of profound financial need, and the promotions play to desperation. The winner will have money to travel, money to pay bills, and will certainly be ecstatic and overjoyed. Financial problems will be remedied, life will be better. Just be sure to enter today. You can't win if you don't play.
Lottery promoters say ''Hey, you pay your buck and you take your chances. You are an adult and can decide for yourself whether or not to play.'' The problem with this argument is that many people don't know enough about games of chance to realistically assess the possible outcomes of a random process.
For instance, what about the role of ''lucky numbers''? Can choosing something personal, such as your birthday or Social Security number, help win?
Mathematicians say ''no way.'' If you randomly choose six numbered ping-pong balls from a well-mixed batch of 50, any mathematician will tell you that any combination of six numbers is equally likely and that ping-pong balls haven't the slightest idea when you were born.
But how are players supposed to know this, in the face of campaigns and promotions that encourage them to look for ''lucky numbers''? Consider these instructions (obtained from a larger list) from Lotto Minnesota: ''Choose your six lucky numbers? Be creative. Use birthdays, anniversaries, or the page of your second cousin twice removed! Then fill your number with black or blue ink or pencil.''
The state ends up exploiting the very citizens who were supposed to be helped by the lottery.
The commercials don't tell you that if you play the 1-in-3,500,000 game once a day, according to the odds you could wait about 9,500 years for your first win.