Cracking the Lottery Code

In Wired, Jonah Lehrer profiles Mohan Srivastava, a Toronto statistician who seemingly cracked the scratch-lottery ticket code. “The tic-tac-toe lottery was seriously flawed,” writes Lehrer. “It took a few hours of studying his tickets and some statistical sleuthing, but he discovered a defect in the game: The visible numbers turned out to reveal essential information about the digits hidden under the latex coating. Nothing needed to be scratched off-the ticket could be cracked if you knew the secret code.” Srivastava took his findings to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, and the game was quickly pulled from stores, but Lehrer wonders if Srivastava is the only person to have cracked a lottery: “Consider a?series of reports by the Massachusetts state auditor. The reports describe a long list of troubling findings, such as the fact that one person cashed in 1,588 winning tickets between 2002 and 2004 for a grand total of $2.84 million. (The report does not provide the name of the lucky winner.) A 1999 audit found that another person cashed in 149 tickets worth $237,000, while the top 10 multiple-prize winners had won 842 times for a total of $1.8 million. Since only six out of every 100,000 tickets yield a prize between $1,000 and $5,000, the auditor dryly observed that these ‘fortunate’ players would have needed to buy ‘hundreds of thousands to millions of tickets.’” There’s a lot more to be said — a lot more that has been said, on this blog — about lotteries; and there’s also the no-lose lottery to consider. (HT: Johnny Tullner) [%comments]

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  1. Steve H says:

    Even if you crack the code, the lottery ticket that the clerk hands you is still out of yuor control, right? Is the assumption that the person(s) who cracked the code also had control over which specific tickets they received?

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  2. Lawrence says:

    I don’t think I can understand how one can exploit such a weakness even if you find it. Are there a lot of lottery sales locations that allow you to peruse lots and lots of tickets before buying one?

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  3. DonBoy says:

    At the linked article, this is explained; in some stores, you could indeed choose which tickets to buy. Alternatively, you could buy a whole roll “for a raffle” and then return the unused ones for a full refund, after you identify the winners and cash those in.

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  4. PeteB says:

    Could those few multiple ticket lottery ticket big winners just be statistical outliers? If a million people each buy $10 worth of lottery tickets each day then some of them will be lucky and some unlucky. A very few will be very lucky, and one hopes the very UNlucky few will quit wasting so much money every day. There’s some interesting brain/behavior science in why some big overall losers continue to buy, but that’s another story.

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  5. Captain Lotto says:

    His “discovery” was limited to a specific type of Scratch game – which most of the ticket vendors have discontinued at this point. He didn’t really “crack the code” as much as he found and exploited a weakness in a game.

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  6. Eric M. Jones says:

    Sounds like a great new school science project. I’d guess that the scratch-off engineers place too much faith in “random” number generators.

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  7. Tim Ashwell says:

    Did the auditor’s report consider the Whitey Bulger effect? Bulger, the notorious and still on the lam Boston mobster, cashed a big lottery winner some years ago which, it was alleged, he convinced the actual winner to hand over. The pot of money effectively blunted any tax evasion charges by providing an explanation for Whitey’s cash flow. Perhaps the lucky winners bundled winning tickets, perhaps offering to pay off in cash at fifty cents on the dollar for those who like undocumented aliens felt uneasy dealing with the state.

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