How to win the Powerball jackpot — or at least not play so stupidly – Washington Post

Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2015

Did you pick the numbers 11-13-25-39-54 — Powerball: 19 — in last night’s $500 million Powerball lottery drawing?

If so, congratulations: This was the fifth-largest prize in U.S. history. Even if you split the jackpot, you likely just won millions of dollars — and, incidentally, live in North Carolina, Puerto Rico or Texas, as Powerball reported. Close your browser and go redeem your ticket. You do not need to finish this article — or ever read again.

But in the likely event you did not choose 11-13-25-39-54 — Powerball: 19 — you may need to brush up on your game. Here are some things to remember when gaming semi-responsibly:

1. It’s a game.

A lottery is not an investment opportunity.

“Lottery games are just that — games,” reads Powerball’s Web site. ” Lottery games are designed to be enjoyable entertainment for adults, and for the vast majority of lottery players, that’s exactly what they are. … Never spend more than you can afford on any lottery product.”

What a bummer.

2. Wait until the jackpot is at least $350 million.

“If you don’t have a ticket, your chances of winning are zero,” Idaho lottery director — and part-time wit — Jeff Anderson told the Associated Press. But how likely are you to win if you buy a ticket?

Your chance of winning the Powerball grand prize is about 1 in 175 million. As the Los Angeles Times put it: “A person is more likely to have an 11th toe, die from flesh-eating bacteria or be killed by an asteroid or shark attack.” But the low chances of hitting the Powerball doesn’t mean it’s stupid if the prize is big enough.

Since tickets cost $2, the prize pool has to be at least ($2 x 175 million = ) $350 million before buying a Powerball ticket is what gamblers call a positive-expectation play — a bet that, statistically, will pay more than $1 for each $1 played.

Of course, the chance that you will split the jackpot complicates this math. So, to have a better chance of not splitting the jackpot:

3. Don’t play the numbers everyone else is playing.

“Aside from waiting until it gets big enough, you want to reduce your chances of splitting the jackpot,” Matt Matros, a professional poker player who occasionally beats professional pundits in Washington Post election-prediction contests, wrote in an e-mail. “So that means, don’t play popular numbers.”

What are popular numbers? Birthdays.

“Don’t play numbers 31 or smaller,” Matros wrote.  And that’s not all — some say people favor numbers based on where they are on the card hopeful players fill out and give to disinterested cashiers.

“Don’t pick the number one,” Scientific American advised in 2012 in an article about picking profitable lotteries based on this study. “It’s on about 15 percent of all tickets. Similarly, avoid lucky numbers 7, 13, 23, 32, 42, and 48. Better are 26, 34, 44, 45, and especially overlooked number 46.” 

4. Don’t forget about variance. 

So — if the Powerball’s prize gets big enough and it makes statistical sense to play, does it make sense to buy as many tickets as you can?

Not really — because though you might be a favorite to win given infinite time and an infinite bankroll, you do not have infinite time and an infinite bankroll. If you spend your life savings on lottery tickets and lose, you’re done, even if you’re Warren Buffett or Bill Gates.

“You would need many, many lifetimes to expect to make money playing the lottery,” Matros wrote. “Yes, it’s plus-EV” — that’s “expected value” — “but there would be some huge likelihood of being a loser playing even the plus-EV spots for 30 years or whatever.”

5. If you win, take the annuity. 

Somewhat sneakily, the “$500 million Powerball” is only worth $500 million if you take 30 payments over 29 years. This is because the annuity payment includes interest. Lump-sum payments are appreciably smaller — in the case of Wednesday’s drawing, a measly $337.8 million.

Depending on your financial situation, that measly $337.8 million might be quite a line item on your tax return. Taking a smaller amount year-by-year might mean less of your winnings go to the IRS. So unless you want to bankroll the next James Bond movie, get paid slower and start looking for deductions.

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