Winning formula: Statistics class takes on lottery

For Nicole Cunningham it started out as a simple matter of ethics. But it's turned into a truth-in-advertising crusade that has picked up support from antigambling activists and prompted several state lotteries to change the way they calculate their odds.

It's also stimulating a national debate on what exactly it means "to win."

One day last fall, the Texas college student bought a scratch-off lottery ticket. On the back, she noticed the odds of winning were pretty good: 1 in 3.5. She scratched the ticket, lost, and then started thinking.

Her statistics class had just done an analysis of the state's big lottery drawing. With the help of her professor, Ms. Cunningham began calculating the odds on her ticket.

At first, the numbers didn't add up. Then she realized what the Texas Lottery Commission was doing. It counted getting one's money back - breaking even - as a "win."

"It was extremely misleading, because it increased the odds," says Cunningham. "If you take out the break-even, the odds double. In some scratch-off games, they triple or more."

Cunningham and her class asked other Texas lottery players if they believed that breaking even constituted a win. "Everyone I talked to said, 'No,' and some of them got really mad," she says.

So she and several classmates, along with their professor, Gerald Busald, took their concerns to the Texas Lottery Commission. At first, Linda Cloud, the lottery's executive director, simply thanked the class in a letter and dismissed the concern "a matter of semantics."

In the letter, Ms. Cloud said she believed that getting a dollar back after wagering a dollar constituted a win. She also noted they hadn't had any complaints on the matter, so "the Commission has no plans to change the way in which the odds are calculated."

That did not sit well with the students or their professor. So in November, at a commission hearing under the glare of klieg lights, the students made their case. After a few, sometimes terse exchanges about what constitutes "ethics in government" and "truth in advertising" the class concluded that it would be more honest for the commission to state that the overall odds of winning included "break-even prizes."

By the end, they'd convinced the commissioners and Cloud.

"I don't see a problem with us doing that," she said. "If that will solve anybody's question about whether the lottery is deceiving the public or not, then I would absolutely suggest that we do something like that."

So now, the back of Texas scratch-off tickets read: "The overall odds of winning any prizes are [1 in] 3.51, including break-even prizes."

That was victory No. 1. Professor Busald then told his class's story at a meeting of national legislators from gambling states. It peaked enough interest to prompt the lawyer from the Nebraska lottery to change the wording there. Then an antigambling group in Illinois got wind of the story.

"I got ahold of a retired math teacher to crunch the numbers here, and found out that the Illinois lottery was calculating the odds the same way," says Kathy Gilroy of the Northern Illinois Anti-gambling Task Force in Villa Park, Ill.

She called the state lottery to complain. Its lawyer not only knew about the Texas dust-up, but was more than willing to make the change there as well. "We said, 'Sure, if it would make things clearer, absolutely,' " says Kurt Freedlund, general counsel of the Illinois Lottery in Springfield. "Practically speaking, it's a minor change, but if it's a clearer statement, then we're all for it."

Similar changes are "under consideration" in Missouri. But most state lotteries contacted by the Monitor echoed the initial reaction of the Texas Commission, which was to dismiss it.

"I think it's a nonissue, because I don't think the playing public cares," says Penelope Kyle, president of North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries and executive director of the Virginia Lottery.

But Ms. Kyle is also not surprised that when people did complain, the other lotteries changed their wording.

"Up until that moment in time, every lottery in the world thought they were being extra careful and extra clear," she says. "This had never, ever been raised but the moment it was, guess what happened? The lotteries changed."

It could be the beginning of even more dramatic changes. Just last weekend in New Jersey, a gubernatorial candidate proposed doing away with scratch-off games all together, saying their odds are actually some of the worst in the entire gambling industry.

For Busald and his students, the chain of events has been satisfying.

"One of the big defenses of the lottery commission was that this was the industry standard," Busald says. "Now I think my students are going to change the industry standard. What do you think the odds are of that happening?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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