No Random Luck

The beauty about luck is that it is supposed to be random. If people did not believe they could win, they would not even try. But what drives belief? A one in ten chance to make a hundred rupees? Or a one in hundred chance to make a million? Luck is fascinating because the returns are inversely proportional to effort. Here’s a series of posts on lotteries from the Freakonomics blog. And they are being used to improve everything from the payment of income tax to disciplining traffic. It seems as if human behaviour will always be influenced by a carrot placed squarely in front of the nose. In a freakish coincidence, the Israeli State Lottery turned up the same winning numbers within three weeks. The odds on that happening are apparently one in 10,000.

What if luck was not random? That’s the question a geological statistician asked himself. The logic was simple. The companies conducting scratch card lotteries could fold if the numbers were truly random. What they had to do was to make it appear to be random to players. Applying the same algorithms that helped to unearth gold deposits, he worked out the mechanisms behind the winning numbers and was able to predict the ones that could win, even without scratching a single card. Suddenly, the odds were even. And the company, when informed, pulled the scratch cards from the stores immediately.

While the statistician was honest enough to bring this to the notice of the lottery company, there are a number of reports of individuals ripping them off. And lotteries have attracted attention from the underworld because they are great to launder money. The moment a lottery winner is profiled in the media, they get a lot of attention – most of it unwanted. The recent instance of Holly Lahti, who won $190 million but would have to split a substantial portion with her estranged abusive ex-husband made headlines because the story was accompanied by a police photo of her assaulted face. The angle  was irresistible – money, violence and luck all combined in a steamy mash-up.