How a group of students used maths to win the lottery

Ten years after a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a group of students used a card-counting system to cheat Las Vegas casinos out of millions of dollars, a group of maths students at the same university sat down and tried to figure out how to .

Clearly lazier than their poker playing predecessors, the maths students decided leaving the room would be too much effort, however, and decided to play the lottery rather than heading to Vegas.

$8million in winnings

The team of maths students were looking for a group project when one of them found a flaw in the Massachussets Lottery which would in effect guarantee success, if they played it at certain times.

The local lottery had a rule that if the jackpot wasn't won, it usually is held over to the next drawing, creating a larger jackpot. In Cash WinFall the jackpot was capped at $2 million. If no-one won this jackpot When no one matched all the numbers (similar to the new rules in the UK lottery), the jackpot would be redistributed to people who had matched fewer numbers - making lesser prizes 5 to 10 times greater than usual.

When this happened, the maths group figured out, it would take around $100,000 of lottery tickets in order to guarantee success in the lottery, with returns of around 15-20%.

Immediate returns

The premise was first tested by James Harvey, part of the group, who on February 7th, 2005, went out and bought $1,000 in lottery tickets. He ended up winning $3000 in this initial test, and immediately decided to make the project work on a larger scale, setting up his own company, Random Strategies Investments.

Within the year, the group had earned about $8million in profit through this system of buying as many tickets as possible whenever the jackpot reached $2million, knowing that jackpots were rare and payouts for tickets matching fewer numbers would more than return their investment. The system earned so much money for the students, they all gave up jobs in order to play the lottery on a full-time basis.

Within a few years more groups attempting the same thing popped up, but the MIT group by that stage claimed to have figured out how to win the whole jackpot in a single drawing, keeping them ahead of the competition. Something they were obviously unwilling to disclose to reporters.

State scandal

You'd think that if the lottery knew of the flaw in their game and that it was being exploited for guaranteed wins, they'd do something about it, right? Right??

Wrong. Emails between the lottery organisers and the group of mathematicians revealed that they knew about the system from as early as 2005, with a lottery supervisor even asking the group "How do I become part of the club when I retire?"

State treasurer Steve Grossman told The Boston Globe:

"I feel it is important to essentially apologize to the public because a game was created that allowed syndicates to gain special opportunities that others did not have, using machines themselves, partnership with lottery agents, using them after hours. We're sorry some gained unfair advantage,"

"Revenues were tremendous and the lottery benefited, but there were practices that were not appropriate and things done that were not right."

Officials knew things weren’t right when Random Investment Strategies cashed in 860 of the 983 winning tickets of $600 or more during one lottery draw. Officials before this had even authorised the sale of extra tickets and installation of extra ticket machines to shops used by the students to buy their tickets, to keep up with the demand.

The game was only ended a few years ago, long after the group of mathematicians had become immensely rich.

Odds of winning in the UK

The odds of winning the UK lottery jackpot are roughly 1 in 45,057,474. The UK lottery also have a cap (of £50m) at which point winnings will be paid to players who match fewer numbers. However at this point, no-one claiming to be able to game the UK lottery has emerged.

So the odds remain staggeringly high against you winning the lottery, with you much more likely to get struck by lightning (1 in 576,000) get crushed by a meteorite (1 in 700,000 - yay space) or visit hospital for a pogo stick related emergency (1 in 115,300 - it's a serious risk and you need to take precautions right now).

Gambling experts William Hill have said that the odds of you winning the UK lottery are similar to the odds of David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron and Nigel Farage winning the coxless four at the 2016 Olympics or the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge having 11 children all of whom win Olympic medals.

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