First time unlucky
Lee and Sarah Mullen missed out on an £8.5 million win on the National Lottery. For years, they had entered the same numbers into the Lotto draw each week. However, following the birth of their daughter, they couldn’t afford both nappies and lottery tickets.
Putting their baby first, the Mullens spent their last pound on nappies. In a cruel twist of fate, all six of their numbers came up the following weekend. Haunted by this missed fortune, the couple vowed never to play the Lotto again.
Second time lucky
However, Lady Luck eventually came good for Lee and Susan, as one of Susan’s dreams literally came true. After apparently dreaming around Christmas time of a £4.6 million Lotto win, Susan began buying Lucky Dips for the EuroMillions draws.
Within six weeks, her premonition came true as the couple scooped £4,873,640, sharing the EuroMillions jackpot of £24.4 million on Friday, 4 February with four other winners. Weirdly, this prize was just £273,640 more than Susan dreamt she would win.
A mathematician’s apology
As a former mathematician, I grinned from ear to ear at this story.
My first grin was one of delight on learning that the Mullens will go from getting by on weekly benefits of £300 to having nearly £5 million to invest and spend. If Lee and Susan can earn 5% a year on their win, then they will have over £20,300 a month to live life to the full.
My second grin was one of amusement, because I know that weird and wonderful results like this can and do happen in random systems. As creatures of habit used to looking for patterns in nature and mental short-cuts in our lives, we humans find it terribly difficult to appreciate true random chance. That’s why we often struggle to put probability in its proper place.
Beating big odds
For example, to win the EuroMillions jackpot, you need to pick five correct numbers from one to 50, plus two more numbers from one to nine. Your chance of doing this is (50 x 49 x 48 x 47 x 46 x 9 x 8) / (5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 2) = 76,275,360 to one.
In other words, you have a one-in-76-million chance of getting all seven numbers right and scooping the Big One. These astronomical odds are worth putting into context: if you buy a EuroMillions ticket before noon, then you are more likely to die before the day is out than to win the jackpot.
As for the UK Lotto, to win the jackpot, you need to pick all six balls draw from numbers one to 49. The odds of doing this are (49 x 48 x 47 x 46 x 45 x 44) / (6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2) = 13,983,816 to one.
Lucky, lucky, lucky
Now let’s say that you bought one UK Lotto ticket this week and one next week, scooping both jackpots. The change of this happening in one in 13,983,816 x 13,983,816 = one in 195,547,109,921,856 (or roughly 195.6 trillion to one). Frankly, that is so unbelievably unlikely that it is almost unimaginable, but probability proves that it could happen.
Indeed, despite the astronomic odds of winning more than one jackpot, multiple-jackpot winners happen more often than you’d expect.
Take Joan Ginther, a Texan living in Las Vegas who has won not one but four lottery jackpots. In total, jammy Joan has won roughly £12.6 million in 17 years of playing US lotteries and scratchcards.
What’s more, Joan isn’t alone, as I’ve found numerous tales of multiple winners. Steve Vachon of Maine, USA won two jackpots just 18 months apart. Perhaps the luckiest winner is the unnamed US punter who won twice in the same month!
How to win twice
To properly understand lotteries, you need know only two things:
- You must be in it to win it. In other words, you must buy a ticket in order to win. Then again, your chance of winning without a ticket (zero) isn’t much less than the 14-million-to-one chance you have after buying a single ticket.
- Nothing changes the odds. No matter what you do or whatever system you use, nothing can increase your chances of winning -- other than buying more tickets, of course. In random systems, only dumb luck separates the winners from the losers.
Therefore, if you want to win the lottery twice, then you could try two things:
- First, enter more often by buying more tickets. Alas, this will most likely lose you more, not win you more.
- Second, when you win your first jackpot, don’t stop buying tickets. Instead, cross your fingers and hope for lightning to strike twice.
Of course, now that you know the odds of actually winning the lottery, you may prefer to do something sensible with your money instead, such as depositing it in a savings account or paying off your credit card bill. That is certainly the approach we would recommend!
But if you’re reading this article, odds are you want to fantasise about a lottery win. Just don’t rely on them to pay the bills – and don’t gamble with money you can’t afford to lose.
Here’s wishing you the best of British luck. With less than 50% of Lotto receipts being returned in prizes (costing us £2.5 billion a year), you’re going to need it!
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