Published February 02, 2011
The random winning numbers on lottery tickets aren't exactly random at all.
Mohan Srivastava is the man who figured out how to beat a scratch lottery game -- and he didn’t even profit from it.
Srivastava, who was featured in this month’s Wired magazine, is a geological statistician by trade and is naturally adept at analyzing numbers and realizing patterns. His day job involves scoping out potential gold mines and determining the how much gold they might contain.
Cracking the lottery wasn’t all that different. Srivastava, using the same math, was able to predict winning tickets for a Canadian Tic-Tac-Toe scratch lottery game 9 out of 10 times. The method is surprisingly simple but his road to discovery involved a bit of chance.
Holding degrees from MIT and Stanford, Srivastava was never drawn to the allure of the lottery -- given the inherent propensity to lose long term. When a friend gave him a couple of cheap scratch games as a joke, he didn’t think much of it. But one of the tickets turned out to be a winner. Srivastava was intrigued.
“On my way [to the cash station to cash my ticket], I start looking at the tic-tac-toe game, and I begin to wonder how they make these things,” Srivastava said in an interview with Wired Magazine. “The tickets are clearly mass-produced, which means there must be some computer program that lays down the numbers. Of course, it would be really nice if the computer could just spit out random digits.”
“But that’s not possible, since the lottery corporation needs to control the number of winning tickets. The game can’t be truly random,” he concluded. “Instead, it has to generate the illusion of randomness while actually being carefully determined.”
Powered with this knowledge, Srivastava realized the game was flawed -- that you could indeed, crack the lottery.
The ultimate solution would allow him to determine a winning ticket with 90% accuracy. “The numbers themselves couldn’t have been more meaningless,” he told Wired Magazine. “But whether or not they were repeated told me nearly everything I needed to know.”
Srivastava was looking for numbers that never repeated, or singletons, raising the probability that the numbers would repeat under the latex coating that must be scratched off. If three singletons appeared in a row, he knew he most likely had a winner.
Since it was never his main goal to scam the lottery, Srivastava duly reported his findings to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, which pulled the flawed game the next day. But variations of his trick have been shown to increase odds of winning on various other scratch tickets.
The larger significance of Srivastava’s winning hack, though, is the confirmation that the lottery is often more contrived than spontaneous. “There is nothing random about the lottery,” he said. “In reality, everything about the game has been carefully designed to control payouts and entice the consumer.”