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Steve Hansen The lottery is a loser’s game

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Steve Hansen

Posted: Tuesday, April 10, 2012 12:00 am

There they are, standing in line for as long as an hour, waiting to by the ticket of their dreams.

It's the mega lottery.

Many of these hopefuls are low-income individuals. People making less than $13,000 per year are spending as much as nine percent of their income. They're hoping to buy that fleet of Ferraris or a multi-million dollar oceanview mansion.

Unfortunately, it's a game for losers.

When friends tell me (even a physician pal uses this line), "Well, somebody has to win." I respond with the following:

Imagine a football field covered with lottery tickets that are knee-high. You have only one chance to walk onto that field, reach down and find yours.

So they say, "OK. I'll buy 100 tickets." I reply, "Great. Now you have 100 chances to reach into that incredible sea of paper. Still think you can do it?"

Mathematics professor Christian Hansen, along with other statisticians, have another way of looking at it. Let's say the following digits are assigned as your "lucky" numbers. They are: 1,2,3,4,5,6.

You'd probably think, "No, that's impossible for lottery balls to spill out, using only the first six digits!" Yet whatever numbers you play, the odds are statistically the same!

Some people believe in magical thinking. They think "luck" will narrow the odds. We've all heard those stories about people who have won multiple times. Maybe you're "special." The "spirits" will somehow shift the numbers in your favor.

Well, how's that belief system working so far? Since the California lottery began over 27 years ago, do you know anyone in this town who has ever won the big prize? I guess the "gods" just don't favor us. Of course, I'm sure that just means we are long overdue.

It's true that, in most cases, somebody does win. Odds do vary depending on the game. I suppose if millions of people walked onto that football field, just by chance, somebody is going to reach down and find his or her ticket. However, the odds are about one in 176 million attempts. That means Tiger Woods has a better chance of sinking several consecutive holes-in-one than you do of having the winning ticket!

Even if you manage to grab the top prize, it's not necessarily the life you have always hoped for. Most people who come from modest surroundings cannot handle mega bucks. Surveys show that as many as 70 percent of jackpot winners are broke within a few years.

Suddenly, your friends and relatives, along with their friends and relatives, have their hands out. You now want to hide from the press and the public. You worry about unscrupulous characters committing violent or fraudulent acts to try and take advantage of your fortune. Divorce rates are high. Your finances and bills become complicated. The government and charities want their slices of the pie as well. You dream about the "good old days" when life was simple, friends were true and you were back with the "99 percent."

For those of you who say that I'm being too negative and taking away people's hope, I have a much better plan. Next time you see several folks standing in line waiting to buy lottery tickets, think about making each one of those hopeful humans a bet. Place a wager that each will lose.

If anyone takes you up on it, you simply won't go wrong.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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