$500 million Powerball jackpot is big for a reason: the odds are worse

Lottery player
Wislande Cosmeus helps a customer get a few tickets for tonight’s $500 million dollar Powerball jackpot at the 7-Eleven convenience store on Southern Boulevard in West Palm Beach on January 6, 2016. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

(Reporter’s update at 1:20 p.m.: The estimated jackpot has increased from $450 million to $500 million today.)

At an estimated $500 million, tonight’s Powerball drawing could be one of the largest U.S. lottery jackpots ever.

And that’s partly because last year, the people who run Powerball made it harder to win the top prize, increasing the already-impossible odds to create bigger and bigger jackpots.

RELATED: POST INVESTIGATION: Gaming the Lottery

Why? Because the lotteries will make more money. Larger jackpots generate more attention, both from the media and the public, which generates more sales.

Lotteries who participate in Powerball downplay this by saying that your odds of winning something besides the largest jackpot are better. In a glowing Florida Lottery press release from October, when the changes were made, the lottery couldn’t even bring itself to call the odds “worse.” Instead, it said the odds were “extended.”

But really, the odds of winning something aren’t much better. The odds of winning $4 on your $2 bet went from 1 in 111 to 1 in 92.

Meanwhile, the odds of winning the top jackpot went from 1 in 175,223,510 to 1 in 292,201,338.

To be fair, though, the previous odds were so remote that playing it was still a fool’s errand.

Overall, the move is a gimmick by lotteries that have experienced slowing sales, Aaron Abrams, an associate math professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, told NorthJersey.com in July.

“It’s certainly a short-term fix, and you can see they’ve changed the rules over and over and over again. They come up with gimmicks,” Abrams said. “Lotteries are in business and they’re in business to make money, and this is marketing. They change the game in an attempt to get attention and spur sales, generate interest and get people excited about the lottery.”

So how did the Multi-State Lottery Association, which manages Powerball, make the odds worse?

To win the Powerball jackpot, you have to correctly pick five numbers, plus a sixth “Powerball” number, generated from a ball machine.

Before, the first five numbers ranged from 1 to 59. Now, they range from 1 to 69. Meaning, the chances became worse.

The sixth “Powerball” number did get better, though. It used to range from 1 to 35. Now it’s between 1 and 26.

If you’re still inclined to play, though, you might take solace in this fact: Florida, which has hosted the Powerball drawings since it started selling the game in 2009, has had more winners than any other state.

Math used in Post’s Florida Lottery investigation published in journal

The Palm Beach Post, with the help of some top-notch mathematicians, used some pretty sophisticated math to uncover fraud within the Florida Lottery last year.

So sophisticated, in fact, that it’s been published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Mathematics.

Much of the content in the paper, “Some people have all the luck,” reads like Greek unless you’re a mathematician. The paper, for example, relies partly on “log-concavity of the regularized Beta function, which lets us show that any local minimizer attains the global minimal value.”

You can bet a Post reporter didn’t write that.

Actually, it comes from three mathematicians and statisticians. When The Post started noticing some people winning the lottery at improbable rates – in some cases, more than 200 times – a reporter reached out to several mathematicians and statisticians for help answering a question: How much would someone have to spend to win the lottery so often?

Skip Garibaldi, a professor at Emory University and associate director of the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics at UCLA, and Philip B. Stark, professor and chairman of the Department of Statistics at the University of California, Berkeley, graciously offered to answer it.

They also enlisted the help of Richard Arriata, a professor at the University of Southern California.

The trio found that the lucky winners would have to spend millions to have a 1-in-20-trillion chance of winning a couple hundred thousand dollars in prize money.

Nobody would be idiotic enough to spend millions to win a few hundred thousand. Even if they were, the odds would be astronomical.

Garibaldi compared the chances to picking out one star out of 50 Milky Way-sized galaxies, then having your friend pick the same star on the first try.

“It’s possible, it’s just utterly implausible,” Garibaldi said last year. “Quantum mechanics tells us all sorts of insane, unimaginable things could happen. Your desk could suddenly turn into a talking goose. There’s a calculable probability that that could happen. But it’s never going to happen.”

Armed with that information, along with some shoe-leather sleuthing, The Post confronted the Florida Lottery with its findings. Instead of admitting fraud within the system, lottery Secretary Cynthia O’Connell replied, “That’s what the lottery is all about. You can buy one ticket and you become a millionaire.”

But actually, the lottery had known for years that people were winning too often, The Post later found. They just chose to do nothing about it.

Some of the frequent winners, including the top one, were part of an underground market for winning lottery tickets, lottery investigators later found.

The winners would buy winning tickets from customers so the customers could avoid paying taxes, child support or other obligations. The lottery pulls those obligations out of the winnings.

The lottery later seized machines and supplies at multiple stores and installed several safeguards to prevent fraud. In all, it’s stopped more than 50 stores from continuing to sell lottery tickets.

Garibaldi also helped reporters at news organizations in 10 others states investigate their lotteries. They, too, found too-frequent winners.