Wired unearths the story of a gold-prospecting math whiz… sorry, geological statistician… who cracked the scratch-off ticket code:
The trick itself is ridiculously simple. ([Mohan] Srivastava would later teach it to his 8-year-old daughter.) Each ticket contained eight tic-tac-toe boards, and each space on those boards—72 in all—contained an exposed number from 1 to 39. As a result, some of these numbers were repeated multiple times. Perhaps the number 17 was repeated three times, and the number 38 was repeated twice. And a few numbers appeared only once on the entire card. Srivastava’s startling insight was that he could separate the winning tickets from the losing tickets by looking at the number of times each of the digits occurred on the tic-tac-toe boards. In other words, he didn’t look at the ticket as a sequence of 72 random digits. Instead, he categorized each number according to its frequency, counting how many times a given number showed up on a given ticket.
“The numbers themselves couldn’t have been more meaningless,” he says. “But whether or not they were repeated told me nearly everything I needed to know.” Srivastava was looking for singletons, numbers that appear only a single time on the visible tic-tac-toe boards. He realized that the singletons were almost always repeated under the latex coating. If three singletons appeared in a row on one of the eight boards, that ticket was probably a winner.
At the moment, Srivastava’s suspicions remain entirely hypothetical; there is no direct evidence that anybody has plundered a game. Nevertheless, there’s a disturbing body of anecdotal evidence (in addition to those anomalous statistics) that suggests that the games aren’t perfect.
Consider a series of reports by the Massachusetts state auditor. The reports describe a long list of troubling findings, such as the fact that one person cashed in 1,588 winning tickets between 2002 and 2004 for a grand total of $2.84 million. (The report does not provide the name of the lucky winner.) A 1999 audit found that another person cashed in 149 tickets worth $237,000, while the top 10 multiple-prize winners had won 842 times for a total of $1.8 million. Since only six out of every 100,000 tickets yield a prize between $1,000 and $5,000, the auditor dryly observed that these “fortunate” players would have needed to buy “hundreds of thousands to millions of tickets.” (The report also noted that the auditor’s team found that full and partial ticket books were being abandoned at lottery headquarters in plastic bags.)
“There is nothing random about the lottery,” [Srivastava] says. “In reality, everything about the game has been carefully designed to control payouts and entice the consumer.”
Srivastava realized that with his system, he could make $600 a day, which wasn’t enough to outdo his
gold prospecting geologic statisticizing. But if an organization with a lot of ill-gotten funds had a desire to turn that illicit money into lottery winnings, it wouldn’t be that hard….