The Lotto has your number, mathematician says

January 16, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

If you're thinking about strolling across the street today to pick up a Maryland Lottery ticket at the local gas station, be careful. You're more likely to get killed by a car than win the jackpot.

And watch out next week. It's more likely a bolt of lightning would come crashing down on your head than you'd win a million dollars.

In short, the odds stink.

That's the message mathematician Alan F. Karr passed on to prospective lottery players yesterday at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Howard County.

Mr. Karr gave an hour-long presentation to more than 150 colleagues and members of the public as part of the lab's weekly colloquia. The topic was "Buy the Number? A Probalistic Analysis of the Maryland State Lottery."

Much of the news was bad. After all, the chances of winning the state's Lotto drawing are about one in 14 million, Mr. Karr said.

In between the slew of numbers and Greek letters that predominated his lecture, the mathematician did have a few encouraging thoughts:

* Players can increase the likelihood of winning the entire jackpot by avoiding popular sets of lottery numbers.

* Players might improve their chances of winning by using one consecutive pair of numbers on each ticket.

"It is the only legal way of becoming a millionaire next weekend if you aren't one already," Mr. Karr noted.

Mr. Karr is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the associate director of the National Institute of Statistical Sciences. He came to his conclusions after studying the Maryland and California lotteries during the last few years.

Mr. Karr began his presentation with a primer on the Maryland Lotto. Tickets cost 50 cents. On each ticket, a person chooses six numbers between 1 and 49 or a machine can choose them randomly.

If the numbers match all six randomly selected by the state during a drawing, the ticket holder wins the jackpot or shares it with any others holding tickets with identical numbers.

While examining the California Lottery between 1991 and 1992, Mr. Karr discovered that five sets of popular combinations accounted for about 10,000 tickets each during any given drawing.

The combinations included:

* 7, 14, 21, 28, 35 and 42.

* 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

* 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30.

* And the last winning ticket number.

By avoiding these favorites, a player greatly improves his or her chances of not having to share a jackpot, Mr. Karr said.

While also examining the California Lottery -- Mr. Karr said Maryland was either unable or unwilling to provide the data he needed -- he noticed that in half the drawings, two of the six numbers were consecutive.

Mr. Karr was surprised to see that paired numbers (like 34 and 35, or 4 and 5) were so common. He checked the phenomenon mathematically and found that it was the probable outcome.

Don't ask why -- unless you use such phrases as "sample mean" and "expected value" in everyday conversation.

Mr. Karr first got interested in the lottery a few years ago when he was a professor of Mathematical Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. When the Maryland Lotto hit $20 million, a local TV station called him for comment on the odds of someone winning the prize.

Since then, he's had fun applying his modern skills to the ancient game of chance.

Mr. Karr has been living in North Carolina for the last year or so, and said he did not know enough about the state's new Keno game to make any observations.

He says he occasionally plays the lottery, but only for his presentations.

"I buy tickets to use as props," he said.

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