​​​Miriam E.Tucker

Why I Play the Lottery
(Written November 2005)

I do it furtively at the 7-11 when nobody I know is looking. If I were caught I’d never hear the end of it. 

No, I’m not talking about slurping down a Super Big Gulp or leafing through a cheesy biker magazine (though I sometimes do that too). In fact, I’m a closet lottery player. 

And not just any lottery game, but the 12-state Mega Millions, for which the odds of winning the jackpot—1 in approximately 176 million—are about as astronomically unlikely as my scoring dates with Brat Pitt, George Clooney and Bono in the same weekend.
But so what—lots of people play the lottery, right? Yeah, but I should know better. As a medical reporter who writes for physicians, I deal with statistics almost daily. I have a science degree from Johns Hopkins, and I’m a member of both the National Association of Science Writers and the DC Science Writers Association. So, I’m at least smart enough to know there’s no way I’ll ever win the Mega Millions jackpot, which stands at $310 million as I write this. But then again…Well, a girl can dream, can’t she? 

Problem is, the statistically astute region of my brain is completely separate from the part that buys lottery tickets. I mean, they’ve got different zip codes. One’s a workaday zone, the other’s a pleasure-seeking place.
While it’s easy to see how actually winning the lottery can elevate one’s mood, it may not be so obvious to those who’ve never played that the mere act of purchasing a ticket is uplifting as well: Immediately, the world brightens. My step’s a little peppier. The air seems cleaner. I’m smiling just a smidge more. Why? Because I MIGHT WIN! 

Would I quite my job? Heck yeah! I’d buy a condo in Manhattan overlooking Central Park and villa on the French Riviera. I’d travel the world, flying first class all the way. But I wouldn’t be entirely selfish: I’d help my family out financially. I’d donate a bunch of bucks to find a cure for diabetes, a disease I share with mega millions of other people. I’d assist the victims of Katrina, Rita, the Tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake, and every other disaster that arises between now and the time I win. The scenario plays over and over in my head…And man, does it feel GOOD! 

Indeed, this “lottery loop” can be so intoxicating that it trumps every other fantasy. Brad who? Eh, he's taken anyway. But, speaking of Angelina Jolie…Oops, never mind. Um, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, the lottery. 

With Mega Millions, you pay $1.00 for every chance, which involves choosing 5 numbers between 1 and 56 and a “gold ball” number from 1 to 46. You can pick your own numbers or let the computer do it for you. Winning numbers are drawn twice a week. Match all six and the jackpot’s yours. How hard can it be?
Sometimes I’ll try to fool the game by out-randoming it. I figure it probably thinks I’m going to do something stupid like play birthdays or anniversaries, so it won’t guess that I’m actually just choosing the first number I see each time I look down. This strategy hasn’t worked yet…But one day it might!
On the other hand, each time I miss that way I let the computer pick the next round. After all, shouldn’t the same random process that determines the winner also choose my numbers? That’s just common sense.
Once, over drinks, I came out about my lottery playing habit to the worst person I could possibly confess it to: A fellow science writer from London who works for a certain no-nonsense British publication that is internationally known for being very, very smart. I fully expected him to lay into me.
But to my surprise, he simply raised one eyebrow and said, “You know, nobody would ever play the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. It would be preposterous. Yet, that has as much chance of winning as any other combination.” 

“Whoa,” I thought, as the reality of this statement slowly sunk in. “He’s just made me a winner!” The next day I played those numbers and didn’t win. But of course, that’s only because I played them on the wrong day. I’m looking forward to my friend’s next U.S. visit so he can give me the other piece of the prophesy. 

Meantime, I’ll just keep playing ‘cause it’s cheaper than Prozac. I do limit myself to just a few tickets a month, since buying more would neither increase the antidepressant effect much nor significantly improve my odds of winning.
Buying 100 Mega Millions tickets, for example, would boost the chance of hitting the jackpot from 1 in 176 million to 1 in 17.6 million. That would be like my going out with Brad, George, and Bono within a week’s time instead of a weekend—It still ain’t gonna happen. 

Nor, for that matter, will I ever get to go shopping (what else?) with Angelina. That’s why I also make sure my real-life wish list contains a few possible dreams, too. ###