LARRY LESSER’S LOTTERY LITERACY!
Executive summary: Dr. Larry Lesser is a Professor in the math department at The University of Texas at El Paso, where he has been since 2004. To help people make informed decisions about how/if they play lotteries, he’s given lectures, written journal articles and letters, and even made an award-winning video/song. Since 1993, his lottery outreach work has received coverage from CNN, Bottom Line Retirement, Real Simple, and many newspapers, TV and radio stations.
In 1993, while a math education doctoral student at The University of Texas at Austin, I saw and heard lots of lottery misconceptions around town and felt called to teach an adult education course (for UT-Austin Informal Classes) I created about the psychology and probability underlying the then-months-old Texas Lottery. The course happened to attract massive media coverage --from a story spanning 37 column inches in the August 28, 1993 Austin American-Statesman all the way to the lead ‘Dollars and Sense’ segment throughout that weekend’s Cable News Network (CNN) Headline News! Subsequent stories have often accompanied the times lotteries begin new games or amass particularly big jackpots, including interviews for radio (e.g., Denver’s KHOW-AM, Houston’s KTRH-AM, Atlanta’s WGST-AM, Houston’s KFNC-FM, Austin’s KUT-FM, San Antonio’s WOAI-AM), TV (e.g., Austin’s ABC-affiliate KVUE-TV, El Paso’s KFOX-TV and KVIA-TV) and national magazines (e.g., June 2005 Real Simple and December 2005 Bottom Line Retirement). At The University of Texas at El Paso, I taught an updated version of this course for PACE in 2006 and gave a lecture for UTEP’s first Centennial Open House in 2014.
In my interview in the March 30, 2012 El Paso Times discussing that day’s drawing for a record $640 million Mega Millions jackpot, I offered these three ways to help the public visualize those 1 in 176 million odds: “Imagine guessing a particular sheet of typing paper from a stack that’s 11 miles high….Another way to imagine it is to try to remember one particular second from a 5.5-year time period or guess a particular square inch from an area that's bigger than 21 football fields, including end zones.” I’ve updated and added new concrete analogies when odds are changed for games (e.g., when interviewed by KUT-FM’s Trey Shaar on Dec. 17, 2013 2 months after Mega Millions odds steepened). I was subsequently again in the El Paso Times and on El Paso TV stations such as CBS-affiliate KDBC-TV, ABC-affiliate KVIA-TV (watch clip), KFOX-TV, and NBC-affiliate KTSM. (For more examples of TV coverage, see https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLdfaHtJTO4LKgr_zJxqjDFIbMqqucwEqr .)
Some tips: Contrary to what many scams out there claim, there are NO strategies to increase an individual ticket’s chance of winning a share of the jackpot. By choosing less-played numbers, however, you may share the jackpot with fewer people IF you win. And although the chance of ever winning is dauntingly miniscule, keep in mind that a lottery ticket (1) gives more hours of daydream fantasy per dollar spent than a matinee, and (2) is not the only thing people buy that loses money on average (e.g., consider insurance).
SONG I wrote to educate general public about lotteries: “The Gambler” (http://www.causeweb.org/resources/fun/db.php?id=50) addresses strategies and myths for playing a state lottery, and may be sung to the tune of the same-titled Don Schlitz song that yielded Kenny Rogers a #1 country hit and TV miniseries; this song was a winner in the fall 2015 math song contest sponsored by the National Museum of Mathematics (which invited me to perform the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVh3Dcr57r0) and was featured on The Ross Kaminsky Show.
VIDEO on my statistics education outreach on the lottery: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxGRghzr5zo (this video won first place in the SIGMAA-QL’s national 2011-12 “QL in the media” contest and the “Best Online Submission” prize in the 2014 ASA’s Got Talent competition sponsored by the American Statistical Association.
ARTICLES I wrote for educators:
* (March 2013). Letter to the Editor: The odds of academic usage of statistics terms in everyday contexts such as lotteries. Journal of Statistics Education, 21(1), 1-5. https://amstat.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10691898.2013.11889670?needAccess=true
* (Sept. 2012). Lottery Lunacy. Mathematics Teacher, 106(2), 93-94. http://www.nctm.org/publications/article.aspx?id=33965 Using the motivating vehicle of a comic strip, this column uses classroom-ready questions to explore the reality of lottery-playing “strategies” such as tracking, wheeling, and pooling.
* (Winter 2004). Take a Chance by Exploring the Statistics in Lotteries. Statistics Teacher Network, No. 65, 6-7. The issue is also available at https://ww2.amstat.org/education/stn/pdfs/STN65.pdf. This article gives intuition for the magnitude of the MegaMillions jackpot probability at that time (on 6/22/05, the jackpot probability became even smaller: 1/175,711,536) and then goes on to show how a lottery can be used to explore (with a TI-83 calculator) all the major topics of an introductory statistics course.
* (Fall 2003). A Whole Lotto Education! Texas Mathematics Teacher, 50(2), 12-15. This article describes classroom explorations of the interpretation and calculation of probabilities involved in Lotto Texas. TI-83/84 calculator commands are given for simulating drawings as well as for calculating relevant probabilities using the binomial, geometric, Poisson, and other distributions.
* (Nov. 1997). Exploring Lotteries with Excel. Spreadsheet User, 4(2), 4-7. Spreadsheets are used to explore the lottery, addressing common misconceptions about various lottery "strategies" and probabilities and providing real-world applications of topics such as discrete probability distributions, combinatorics, sampling, simulation and expected value. Additional pedagogical issues are also discussed. Examples discussed include the probability that an integer appearing in consecutive drawings, the probability that a single 6-ball drawing includes at least two consecutive integers, the probability that exactly one person wins the jackpot, and the probability that a frequent player eventually wins the jackpot.
* I’ve also published related letters in the August 2011 Mathematics Teacher and in mass media such as the Austin Chronicle (5/14/93), Houston Chronicle (6/12/04), El Paso Times (11/4/10), etc.
Official Lottery WEBSITES:
Mega Millions: http://www.megamillions.com/
Texas Lottery Commission: http://www.txlottery.org
New Mexico Lottery: http://www.nmlottery.com/
2-minute movie with lottery/probability: https://www.causeweb.org/resources/fun/db.php?id=226
Where Texas Lottery money goes: http://www.txlottery.org/export/sites/lottery/Supporting_Education/
How to Win More: Strategies for Increasing a Lottery Win, probably the only book on lotteries I’ve found so far that I’d recommend: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1568810784/002-6149190-5012835?v=glance&n=283155
find any misconceptions here? http://www.smartluck.com/locations/tips/tx544.htm
How some people try to defend lotteries: http://www.naspl.org/
One way to make your own “quick-pick” of numbers: http://www.random.org/sform.html
some articles for math lovers: http://www.lottery.state.mn.us/hypergeo.html, www.amstat.org/publications/jse/v2n2/wasserstein.html, www.amstat.org/publications/jse/v13n2/mecklin.html, www.amstat.org/publications/jse/secure/v7n3/boland.cfm
Shirley Jackson’s famous 1948 short story called “The Lottery”: http://www.americanliterature.com/Jackson/SS/TheLottery.html; here’s a video adaptation by Larry Yust broken into 2 nine-minute clips:
My UTEP homepage: http://www.math.utep.edu/Faculty/lesser/