Palou wins pole for Sunday's Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix

Rubin: Hey, lottery players — you’re doing it wrong

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

I would not encourage you to buy a Lotto 47 ticket. Gambling is a vice, and there’s all that sin and perdition and stuff to deal with.

Besides, I don’t want the competition. Speaking as a former Las Vegan, though, and as someone who attended college on a seven-card stud scholarship, I will say this:

If you’re inclined to buy a lotto ticket between now and Wednesday, think small.

Wednesday night’s multi-state Powerball jackpot stands at $206 million. Also Wednesday, the humble, Michigan-only Lotto 47 game will offer a top prize of $19,600,000.

By my calculations, $19.6 million is a lot less than $206 million. Still, in a rarity for a jackpot-style game, Lotto 47 is temporarily a good bet. Meantime, Powerball remains what it always is, a $2 tax on a daydream.

I should point out that I am not here to shill for the Michigan Lottery, which has an ample advertising budget and seems to be thriving on its own. I am also not suggesting that “a good bet” and “a smart bet” are necessarily the same thing.

I should also point out that I will soon interrupt your day with a few numbers — though if it’s any more appealing, we will also discuss bananas and Kim Kardashian.

And, I should quickly introduce you to Ruth Cassidy, the president of the Ann Arbor chapter of the American Statistical Association.

Cassidy has never purchased a lottery ticket, and as someone on close personal terms with percentages and probabilities, she says that “even if it seems like your chances of a higher payout are better now, your chances of winning at all are still basically zero."

With those disclaimers out of the way, let us gradually move on to Lotto 47, the Libertarian party of the lottery system: Yeah, it’s on the ballot, but it doesn’t get any love or any billboards or even any of those lighted signs in the front windows of gas stations.

About those bananas

It’s human nature to get fixated on the jumbo jackpots. The problem for the Michigan Lottery is that the more we see prizes of $150 million on up, the harder it is to get our attention.

As spokesman Jeff Holyfield puts it, “All jackpots are good, but bigger jackpots are better.”

What the wagering public typically doesn’t consider are odds. Not only does a Powerball ticket cost $2, twice as much as Lotto 47, the chances of winning the grand prize are 1 in 292,201,338.

A University of Colorado professor named Paul Campos figured out that with about 300 million pocket phones in use in the United States, and with Kim Kardashian owning three of them, you are three times more likely to dial a random cell number and reach her than you are to cash the big ticket.

Then there’s the banana analogy, as expressed in Good Magazine. Assume you went to Kroger and bought 292,201,338 bananas, at an average length of 71/2 inches. Lay them end-to-end and they would wrap around the 24,901 miles of the equator, then extend almost 10 miles into space.

To win at Powerball, all you have to do is pick the one correct banana.

Of course, occasionally somebody does, which is what keeps us lining up at 7-Eleven. (That, and Wild Cherry Slurpees.)

Improving your odds

The Lotto 47 jackpot starts small, a mere $1 million compared to $40 million for Powerball. It grows slowly, since lottery players prefer the flashier games like Powerball and Mega Millions, and it’s won with relative frequency, because the odds are a comparatively trifling 10,737,573-1.

Flukishly, however, the jackpot has gone unclaimed since June 22. Wednesday’s $19.6 million top prize would be the second-highest ever, next to a $23.6 million hit in 2008. It has become what gamblers call an overlay, meaning the payoff is greater than the odds against claiming it.

For an analogy far easier to swallow than 292 million bananas, consider that the population of Michigan is 9.91 million. Throw in greater Toledo at 651,429, and that’s just about the same number as the Lotto 47 odds. It almost makes winning seem likely — which, to toss out one last dose of reality, would be incorrect.

Cassidy is a statistician in the surgery department at the University of Michigan Health System. As a numbers ninja, “I’ve been asked for advice,” she says.

Her response is always, “Don’t play the lottery.” But if you’re inclined to, this could be the week to have faith — just a little of it, maybe $19.6 million worth.