April 02, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

It's far from the proverbial sure thing, but an afternoon wager on a favorite at Pimlico might be the state's best bet.

And the odds of winning the top prize in keno -- the fast-paced numbers game state lawmakers are counting on to help balance the public books -- are actually worse than hitting Lotto's elusive jackpot.

A statistical comparison of Maryland's numerous forms of legal gambling shows a wide spread of probabilities. Although many people opt for one game over another for reasons other than odds, such as a love for horses, some bets make more sense than others.

To be sure, gambling is still a gamble: Most people lose most of the time. But it you insist . . .

"It depends on what you want. If you're out to win $2 million, then you have to play the lottery, because you can't bet that much at the track," says Alan F. Karr, a former Johns Hopkins University ++ professor and now associate director of the National Institute of Statistical Sciences in North Carolina.

But, he adds: "You lose money more slowly at the track."

Crafting a betting strategy involves more than mere odds. When analyzing games of chance, statisticians consider the number of players, the number of winners, the payout, odds and other factors. One useful comparison of wagers is something called "expected loss," or the average loss all players suffer for every dollar bet. The concept was devised by French mathematicians in the 1700s.

For example, for most horse races in Maryland, the track keeps, by law, 17 percent of the bets to cover the track's cut, taxes and other costs. The rest is distributed to winners according to the odds set by bettors in the pari-mutuel pool.

Taken as a group, therefore, bettors have an expected loss of 17 cents, says Daniel Q. Naiman, an associate professor of Mathematical Sciences at Johns Hopkins.

That's for a regular, win, place or show bet. Exotic bets, although they pay more, can be a worse deal because more money is deducted from the pot. At most of the state's major tracks, exacta and daily double bets have an expected loss of 19 cents and a triple has one of 25 cents.

At Delmarva Downs, 18 3/4 cents is kept from regular bets, and, at the Fair Hills steeplechase, it's 22 cents.

Racetrack aficionados consider their sport more than a game of chance. There have been dozens of books on how to play the horses, from interpreting equine body language to exploiting mathematical anomalies among the win, place and show bets.

Bettors are actually pretty good at picking winners; the favorite finishes first about a third of the time. But even if you randomly select a horse from a field of nine, the odds of 1 in 9 are not bad, although the payout varies widely depending upon any individual horse's odds and the number of bettors.

So why would anybody play the lottery, with its awful odds?

"People would rather take a chance on making a huge sum of money with a probability that doesn't make it likely. It's a psychological phenomenon," Dr. Naiman says.

Make no mistake about it: You're more likely to get hit by a car on your way to buying a Lotto ticket than you are to hit the jackpot. According to Dr. Karr's calculations, you would have to buy a ticket every week for 186,104 years to have a 50-50 shot of winning.

Half off the top

For starters, the state retains 50 cents for every $1 Lotto bet, meaning that all bettors lose an average of 50 cents per $1 bet (you guessed it: an expected loss of 50 cents).

It's worse if you're hoping for the jackpot, because only about 39 cents for every $1 bet is put into that prize pool. Four cents goes for the second-place finishers and about 7 cents for third-place finishers. That gives the Lotto jackpot an expected loss of 61 cents, although Lotto tickets don't discriminate among first-, second- or third-place prizes.

Add to that inflation eroding your annual payout (big lottery prizes are paid through 20-year annuities), taxes and the possibility that you will have to share the prize with someone else who picks the same number, and the figures get even worse than the official jackpot odds of 1 in 7 million. The odds of finishing anywhere in the money in Lotto are about 1 in 506.

But there are ways to improve the potential return. Dr. Karr, for example, notes the pot turns over every time the winning number is not picked. So, in the following weeks, players are competing against a current pool of bettors for prize money contributed from previous players.

It doesn't improve your chances of winning, says Dr. Karr, but "you are better off winning a larger pot, rather than a smaller

one."

Along the same line, he suggests avoiding common numbers, such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Even if the number wins, you're more likely to have to share it with another winner, splitting the pot.