Today's best lottery bet: in an upset, it's Lotto 47

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

If you buy a Powerball or Mega Millions ticket in Michigan Wednesday, you deserve to lose your money.

It’s not that we wish you ill fortune, but a much better bet is waiting for you at the same lottery machine.

Big-jackpot games like Mega Millions and Powerball tend to draw all the attention, but for now, Lotto 47 is the best bet.

Lotto 47, the pack mule among lotto-style thoroughbreds, is offering its third-highest jackpot ever Wednesday night at $20.1 million. Thanks to two strokes of someone else’s fortune and a disaster — the COVID-19 pandemic — the Powerball top prize later that night will be only $22 million, and Tuesday’s Mega Millions figure was only $22 million as well.

It doesn’t take an accounting degree to know that $22 million is more than $20.1 million. Hold on, though: a ticket for the Michigan-only Lotto 47 drawing costs $1, half the price of the two multi-state games — and winning the top prize is about 27 times easier.

After an improbable 64 straight drawings without a Lotto 47 winner, dating to Feb. 8, “I don’t know that you can get a much better return on your $1 investment than $20.1 million,” said Michigan Lottery spokesman Jake Harris.

Not at the odds, anyway. Each ticket’s chance of winning the grand prize is 1 in 10,737,574, meaning the payoff is greater than the odds against claiming it.

As for Powerball and Mega Millions? Odds for the first are about 1 in 292 million, and the second about 1 in 302 million.

You don’t want to bet the house on any of them, please. But at odds of some 300 million-to-1 for a $22 million check, minus taxes, you might not even want to bet the shed.

The highest Powerball jackpot ever was $1.586.4 billion in January 2016. The highest for Mega Millions was $1.537 billion in October 2018. The starting point after someone claims a jackpot had been $40 million, but that baseline was cut by half in the early days of the pandemic.

"The change was made by the groups that run those games, based on ticket sales and interest rates," Harris said. "They had a number of states, including Michigan, where you had 'stay home, stay safe' orders. To make sure they could fund those prizes, they reset to $20 million."

A losing ticket from Saturday night's Lotto 47 drawing. There were no winners, and Wednesday's $20.1 million rollover is the third-highest ever for the game.

Recent winners in both multi-state drawings, followed by one rollover, put each jackpot at $22 million just as Lotto 47 was nearing record levels. The most robust Lotto 47 prizes in the game's various forms, dating to 1984, were $23.6 million in 2008 and $22.6 million in 2017.

In Ann Arbor, statistician Sophia Ng has politely taken a pass on all of them.

Ng works in health services research at the University of Michigan and is president-elect of the Ann Arbor chapter of the American Statistical Association. She speaks fluent math, and grasps that "the probability of wining is small."

But she’s also conversant in human behavior, "and life is more than numbers and probability. There’s also your personal enjoyment," and a dollar or two might seem like a small price for a daydream — again, at long odds.

Consider Powerball and Mega Millions, built for repeated rollovers and attention-getting jackpots, and consider a road built from Nome, Alaska, through Key West, Florida, and all the way to Havana.

The road would stretch 4,576 miles, give or take. Bet on a butterfly landing on one specific inch of it, and that's 290 million to 1.

Cashing a winning Mega Millions ticket is nearly three times less likely than getting killed by a vending machine, perhaps the one you bought it from.

The advantage of Lotto 47 is that while its potential payoffs are less gaudy, its odds are more imaginable. 

Michigan's population sits just shy of 10 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The population of greater Toledo is 651,429. Throw in Deerfield Beach, Florida, for another 81,000, just because you've thought about retiring there.

If everyone in those places buys a different Lotto 47 ticket, one of them will hold the winner.

Sales of lotto-type games fell markedly in Michigan during the most wide-open pandemic window, from mid-March to August. Powerball was down 48% and Mega Millions 25%, Harris said, with people hunkered down and no giant jackpots to fuel interest. Lotto 47 was off 12%.

Overall, however, state lottery sales are up 7.5% for the fiscal year that began in October, with a powerful shove from online sales — an increase of 130% since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Ng, again, did not partake.

"I’m sure I’d be happy if I won," she conceded.

But she’ll be equally happy saving those dollars for a good cause, she said, and that’s a sure thing.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn