Shortly after Bon Truong emigrated from Vietnam to Edmonton, Canada, with hardly any money to his name, he began playing the lottery. Specifically, the Western Canada Lottery Corporation’s “Lotto Max.” Every time he played, he used the same numbers: 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 20 and 30 — a combination of important dates and family birthdays in Truong’s family, according to the WCLC.
For 30 years, week after week, decade after decade, Truong came up empty-handed. Then, on October 26th, 2018, Truong, 55, woke up to a $60 million win.
There are other viral stories like Truong’s out there: people who played the same “lucky” numbers and finally won; people who suffered through unimaginable hardship only to be bailed out by the lotto. Viral lottery winners include single mothers, people with chronic illness or debilitating medical debt, people who say the numbers come to them in a dream.
These are heartwarming stories, to be sure. It’s hard not to think of the lotto slogan “somebody’s gotta win” and not think, Gee, could be me! It also hints at the lottery’s underlying appeal: that classic American Dream idea that those who most deserve it rise to the top. Bon Truong’s story even suggests that there’s magic in the sentimental numbers and unflagging persistence.
The Lie of the ‘Lucky Number’
I reached out to Matthew Zaremsky, assistant professor of mathematics at the University at Albany, to learn more about lotto probability.
Now, the reason Truong’s story stands out is because he played the same exact numbers for several decades. He’s not alone in this practice; we humans are a superstitious bunch, if nothing else. According to multiple sources, picking the same numbers every time is how the majority of lotto players choose to play.
Is this the secret? Should we all be playing our lucky numbers?
“Playing the same numbers each time gives you exactly the same probability of winning,” the professor tells MEL. “It’s neither better nor worse.”
The reason is simple. “In a standard lottery, every lottery drawing is totally independent of every other lottery drawing,” he continues. In other words, there is no credence to the belief that your number will “eventually” get picked — no matter what WikiHow says.
“The lottery doesn’t ‘know’ that your numbers haven’t won yet, and it doesn’t make an effort to aim toward your numbers,” Zaremsky says. But the same could be said for the opposite. “It’s also not a disadvantage to use the same numbers each time. Just because your numbers keep losing, that’s not indicative of inherently ‘bad’ numbers.”
Lottery Game Theory: How to Avoid Splitting Your Winnings
Actually picking numbers is where things can get a bit tricky. Truong might not have lessened his chances by using the same numbers every time, but he may have hurt his chances by choosing to use dates.
This, Zaremsky says, is where the lottery “becomes an interesting game theory problem.”
“Since every number sequence is equally likely to be drawn, including ‘weird’ ones, it’s definitely beneficial to try and come up with a sequence no one else will come up with,” he says, referring to a report from The Guardian that an estimated 10,000 people pick the numbers “1,2,3,4,5,6” when they play the lottery.
Therefore, playing comparatively “random” numbers lessens the chances of having to split your winnings with the dummies who pick “popular” numbers. Because people tend to choose dates, you should pick numbers above 31, Zaremsky advises.
You could get really in-depth with the challenge of picking the most “random” number out there. You could avoid numbers in any kind of sequence, prime numbers and numbers all divisible by the same number. Hey, just think of all the Smart Guy math dudes who think they’re being special by trying the Fibonacci sequence.
On that note, the professor adds the sage advice to avoid any numbers that “mean something” to certain groups of people who’d be inclined to pick them, like the sequence 4, 2, 0, 6, 9 or days 1 to 31 on a calendar.
How to Pick a ‘Good’ Lottery Number
As other statisticians advise, your best bet is to “leave the number-picking up to the computer.” Your brain sucks at randomizing numbers, and computers are good at it. If there’s one lotto narrative you choose to believe, make it the fact that “70 percent of past winners used Quick Picks, the computer system that spits out numbers,” according to ABC News.
But leaving the number-picking to a cold, soulless computer takes the fun out of the lottery! It makes it feel more like you’re just throwing away your money (you are), and all the meaning we try to apply to our lives and the significant numbers therein is for naught (it is).
Surely, there is something you can do to win easy money, right? According to the man with a Ph.D. in mathematics, sure there is. “Overall, the best strategy for the lottery is, as always, not to play it, since your chances of winning are astronomically small!”