Give a Crazy Person a Bunch of Lottery Numbers, and This is What Happens

So an interesting thing happened to me today. I was checking my external hard drive (a 2 TB monster I bought a couple years ago) to see if I had ever backed up the DVD for The Incredible Hulk to it. Why was I doing this? I wanted to get the quote from Edward Norton — as Bruce Banner — saying in Portuguese, “Don’t make me hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry.”

Sadly, I had never backed up that movie. But while I was digging around in my hard drive, I discovered a spreadsheet containing winning Powerball lottery numbers over a roughly eight-and-a-half-year period during the 1990′s. See, back in the mid-90′s I made a trip to Pocatello, Idaho. I figured, since I was going to be up there, I may as well buy me a Powerball ticket.

This was shortly after my motorcycle accident of 1995, still during my recovery period. Since I spent most days sitting around trying to entertain myself — or attending boring computer science classes at the local college — I had plenty of time on my hands. So I downloaded the winning numbers for the last 914 Powerball lottery draws, then proceeded to manipulate them in various ways to help me decide what numbers to play.

Long story short, the numbers I ended up choosing did not win. I came back home and forgot all about that spreadsheet… until today. And that’s when my short story becomes a touch longer.

Coincidentally, I happen to have a lot of time on my hands today. So I decided to play around with the numbers again. Specifically, I wanted to see how often each number had been drawn.

A little background: a Powerball ticket consists of choosing five main numbers from a pool of numbers ranging 1 to 59, then a “Powerball” number from 1 to 39. The odds of matching all six numbers is roughly 1 in 195 million. So you can see why the lottery is often referred to as “a tax on people who are bad at math.” Or, perhaps more truthfully, “a tax on the poor.” I just refer to it as a “sucker bet.” And yes, I’m a sucker :)

Okay… let’s get back to my point here. I calculated how often each number from the main five occurred over a period of 914 draws. Here are my findings graphed:

As you can see, most numbers were drawn somewhere between 80 and 95 times. This shows that the lottery officials have done a pretty decent job at maintaining randomness. However, what struck me as interesting was the fact that the occurrence of a number being drawn drops off sharply when you hit the 50′s.

This starts with #51 drawn 62x (besting the previous low of 71x) and bottoming out with #58 drawn 4x, finishing with #59 drawn 7x.

Now some information that compulsive lottery players might be interested in…

The five most commonly drawn numbers were 16 (105x), 19 (96x), 26 (101x), 40 (96x), and 42 (97x). The numbers 9, 30, and 49 each barely missed the cutoff at 95x drawn each.

The numbers drawn the least were 55 (38x), 56 (9x), 59 (7x), 57 (6x), and 58 (4x).

Now, obviously, none of this is indicative of the odds of any particular number or range of numbers being drawn in the future. Like I said, this data comes from 914 draws during the 1990′s. The last 10 draws (from Dec. 7 2011 to Jan. 7 2012) drew numbers in the 50′s nine times.

In conclusion: 1 in 195 million odds? I’d buy that for a dollar!

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