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Playing The (Very Long) Odds

Fun with numbers in the tiny chances of winning a Powerball jackpot

If there’s one thing I can say about the recent excitement over the Powerball jackpot, it’s that it makes the odds of winning at the casino look a lot better.

I’ve only played the table games at the casino once, on a rainy Saturday earlier this year when I visited Mohegan Sun with a friend. It was one of those things where you go in with an expectation of a loss. I took out $100 with the expectation that it was all I would gamble, and that if I lost it all I would at least have some fun doing so. After an initial success at the three-card poker table turned into a $42 loss, I decided to plunk the rest down on red at the nearby roulette table.

When the little ball came to a rest, the 50-50 odds paid me back double and allowed me to go home with a whopping $12 profit. I could have decided to put it all on a single number. If I’d been lucky enough to choose the right one, I would have walked away with $2,030. But the odds of such a bet are daunting: 37 to one.

This, of course, is nothing compared to the odds put forth on Wednesday for winning the Powerball jackpot ($550 million at the time I’m writing this). To correctly guess the five white numbers and Powerball, the odds are about one in 175 million.

While having lunch, I overheard one customer mention one illustration for how microscopic those chances are. If you were looking for a penny marked with an X in a chain of 175 million of the coins stretched end to end, you’d be searching over a 168-mile distance. Or you could just collect all the pennies and have a cool $1.75 million.

Some other fun comparisons to that 175 million to one shot based on cumulative odds:

  • It’s akin to letting it ride on a roulette number about 4.86 million times. I’m not sure how much I’d have at the end of that run, but I’m sure it would be enough to ruin the global economy.
  • You have the same chance of being involved in a plane crash on your next 16 commercial flights.
  • Based on C-3PO’s odds, it’s the same as Luke surviving 241,379 nights on Hoth or Han Solo navigating that asteroid field 47,043 times. The former amounts to 661 years, so perhaps the odds aren’t in Luke’s favor after all.

As I'm finishing this column up to post for the weekend, there are two winning tickets waiting to split the enormous prize. So suddenly the odds don't seem quite so bad. Even though Powerball isn't a nationwide game, if you figure in multiple ticket purcases equating a purchase of one ticket by each of the 311 million residents in the United States, the odds go from a long shot to a near-guarantee that 1.78 residents will hit the big prize.

I generally avoid the lottery, and idly thinking about the fortune a Powerball jackpot would bring in I realized that I would probably end up giving most of it away bit by bit over the years. But next time, I might just go for a ticket.

Hey, in the end even the slim odds just mean it's not impossible.

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