NC Powerball: Surry Community College professor explains the math behind the jackpot


Lotto jackpot hits record $1.5 billion

By Terri Flagg - tflagg@civitasmedia.com



A customer holds tickets for the North Carolina Powerball at Tar Heel Tobacco on Rockford Street for a Jan. 6 jackpot of $500 million. The jackpot for the lottery reached $1.5 billion by Tuesday afternoon.


Terri Flagg | The News

Mitchell Reynolds had big plans if his numbers come in for the North Carolina Powerball Jan. 6 Powerball drawing. The jackpot for the lottery reached $1.5 billion by Tuesday afternoon.


Terri Flagg | The News

A customer holds tickets for the North Carolina Powerball at Tar Heel Tobacco on Rockford Street for a Jan. 6 jackpot of $500 million. The jackpot for the lottery reached $1.5 billion by Tuesday afternoon.


Terri Flagg | The News

It’s not D-Day; world peace hasn’t been declared; Elvis is still (by most accounts) dead.

But the Powerball lottery game jackpot, which hit a historic $1.5 billion as of Tuesday afternoon, feels, well, historical.

It’s the kind of thing folks want to be a part of, no matter how well you understand just how unlikely it is you’ll win.

Even Dr. Susan Worth, mathematics division chair at Surry Community College, caught jackpot fever.

“I bought my first ticket a week ago today,” Worth said.

“My son was home from college, and it was something to do with him,” she said. “I heard it on TV so much, there was so much talk, so much hype.”

The pair pulled a combined $4 to buy two tickets for the then $500 million jackpot, a move that Worth said did not significantly improve their chances of winning.

“That denominator is so big at this point that it’s going to make such a small difference,” Worth said.

Denominator? Oh yeah, the bottom part of a fraction.

According to the NC Powerball website, the odds of winning the jackpot are one in 292 million.

First of all, “odds are different from probability,” Worth said.

According to a December 2014 post on Stats.com, NC Powerball uses the term “odds” incorrectly. Odds are a ratio based on probability. Probability is the extent to which an event is likely to occur based on a ratio of favorable cases to the whole number of cases possible.

One in 292 million is in fact the probability that the numbers on a ticket will be the numbers drawn compared to all the possible number combinations.

The Powerball website states in its frequently asked questions that the actual mathematical odds of winning are against you 17 billion to one.

The two concepts are related by a simple equation, Worth said, using simpler numbers to put those numbers in context: ones and twos.

“If the odds are one to one, it’s an even game,” she said. “The probability would be 1/2 (one over one plus one) or 50 percent.”

So a probability of one in 292 million translates to 0.00000034265753 percent chance of winning.

Yikes.

Buying an extra ticket would increase the probability of winning to two in 292 million, or 0.0000006849315007 percent.

Still yikes.

It’s something even the Powerball website cheerfully acknowledges.

“It is obvious that buying more tickets will help, but the odds are still high and hitting the jackpot is still a question of fate,” the website states, clarifying that swinging a live chicken above your head while wishing for numbers, playing fortune cookie numbers, following the alignment of the planets or arrangement of tea leaves will also not improve a player’s likelihood of winning.

“Any of these ideas will win sometimes, but that is just chance working its magic.”

Worth offered a couple of suggestions for increasing your chances of winning.

Number one: dream small.

“The probability or the odds are for the big cash,” she said, noting that smaller prizes are available with much better chances of winning.

Next: pay an extra dollar for a multiplier to double or triple the prize amount.

“Four people had won last week had bought the extra,” Worth said. “There were others last week in North Carolina where they did win dollar amounts. Had they bought that extra option, they would have won double.”

According to a statement released by the North Carolina Education Lottery, nine players won prizes ranging from $50,000 to $150,000

The four $150,000 winning tickets had purchased the multiplier, which tripled a $50,000 regular prize.

The Powerball website also gives a tip for potential players:

“There are 35 numbers in Powerball’s second drum and so, if a group buys 35 tickets in the Powerball game, each with unique red Powerball number, then you are 100 percent guaranteed to win the $4 prize, at least. … This is a little pricey for most individual players, but if you are in a group you might consider covering all of the red balls.”

The website also addresses the question of computer-generated numbers or those picked by the player are more likely to win, stating that about 70 to 80 percent of purchases are computer picks and about 70 to 80 percent of winners are computer picks.

Worth said she picked her own numbers for last Wednesday’s game and her son used the computer-generated numbers.

“I used my special numbers, birthdays and stuff like that,” Worth said. “Neither one of us won.”

For the Saturday drawing with a $750 million jackpot, when Worth said she and her husband hit three different gas stations to purchase tickets, the professor said she used a random number generator function on her calculator.

Still no winners, but that’s not the point.

“We didn’t think we were going to win, we just did it for entertainment,” she said, adding, “Someone’s going to win.”

A customer holds tickets for the North Carolina Powerball at Tar Heel Tobacco on Rockford Street for a Jan. 6 jackpot of $500 million. The jackpot for the lottery reached $1.5 billion by Tuesday afternoon.
https://www.pilotmountainnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/web1_160105_Lotto-5.jpgA customer holds tickets for the North Carolina Powerball at Tar Heel Tobacco on Rockford Street for a Jan. 6 jackpot of $500 million. The jackpot for the lottery reached $1.5 billion by Tuesday afternoon. Terri Flagg | The News

Mitchell Reynolds had big plans if his numbers come in for the North Carolina Powerball Jan. 6 Powerball drawing. The jackpot for the lottery reached $1.5 billion by Tuesday afternoon.
https://www.pilotmountainnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/web1_160105_Lotto-7.jpgMitchell Reynolds had big plans if his numbers come in for the North Carolina Powerball Jan. 6 Powerball drawing. The jackpot for the lottery reached $1.5 billion by Tuesday afternoon. Terri Flagg | The News

A customer holds tickets for the North Carolina Powerball at Tar Heel Tobacco on Rockford Street for a Jan. 6 jackpot of $500 million. The jackpot for the lottery reached $1.5 billion by Tuesday afternoon.
https://www.pilotmountainnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/web1_160105_Lotto-78-1.jpgA customer holds tickets for the North Carolina Powerball at Tar Heel Tobacco on Rockford Street for a Jan. 6 jackpot of $500 million. The jackpot for the lottery reached $1.5 billion by Tuesday afternoon. Terri Flagg | The News
Lotto jackpot hits record $1.5 billion

By Terri Flagg

tflagg@civitasmedia.com

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

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