Could it be you?
This week someone in California won over a billion dollars on Powerball. It's staggering to think that kind of money is available. (I wrote about it for TIME magazine when they were upping the jackpot system). Naturally, having the potential for a jackpot over a billion dollars also meant extending the odds against you winning. But people don't tend to think about that when they're buying lottery tickets. It's an old joke that a lottery ticket is basically a tax on stupidity, because anyone who understands the concept of one in a million should understand it's pretty close to zero in a million.
But those aren’t the chances most people work with. The intelligent observer says only fools buy tickets because they will not win. But the people who buy lots of lottery tickets, they win all the time. Of course they don't win the jackpot. But they win smaller amounts: $20 here, $100 there. To be a regular player is to be a regular winner. And that's something that non-players don't seem to understand. Of course the regulars win much less overall than they spend (which is often more than they can afford) on tickets, but they win enough to keep them feeling lucky.
But if you really want to win a lottery and want to be sure of winning, you have two ways of doing it. The first is you somehow rig the game. This requires you to have an accomplice working for a lottery company, you fix the machine or something. It has been done, or at least attempted, historically. But the chances of managing to pull it off and get away with it obviously are pretty slim. (This kind of thing is, by the way, precisely why some states have laws that make lottery winners’ names public. It’s a form of transparency, to prove not only that there was a winner, but that this person didn't just happen to be the wife of the guy who runs the lottery company).
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