Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Math The Almighty Buck

Statistician Cracks Code For Lottery Tickets 374

Posted by samzenpus
from the knowing-where-to-scratch dept.
Hugh Pickens writes writes "Lottery Post has an interesting story about Mohan Srivastava, an MIT educated statistician who became intrigued by a particular type of scratch-off lottery ticket called an extended-play game — sometimes referred to as a baited hook — that has a tic-tac-toe grid of visible numbers that looks like a miniature spreadsheet. Srivastava discovered a defect in the game: The visible numbers turned out to reveal essential information about the digits hidden under the latex coating. Nothing needed to be scratched off — the ticket could be cracked if you figured out the secret code. Srivastava's fundamental insight was that the apparent randomness of the scratch ticket was just a facade, a mathematical lie because the software that generates the tickets has to precisely control the number of winners while still appearing random. 'It wasn't that hard,' says Srivastava. 'I do the same kind of math all day long.'"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Statistician Cracks Code For Lottery Tickets

Comments Filter:
  • Small typo (Score:4, Funny)

    by benedictaddis (1472927) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:15PM (#35086278)
    "Lottery Post has an interesting story about Mohan Srivastava, a *millionaire* MIT educated statistician" Fixed that for you
    • Re:Small typo (Score:5, Interesting)

      by spun (1352) <loverevolutionar ... minus physicist> on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:37PM (#35086472) Journal

      Some people are not motivated primarily by greed. I'm guessing many people who go to MIT and become statisticians fall into that category, I mean, if they have that mindset and level of intelligence they could easily have gone to a business school and gone on to make millions. I'm not saying scientists, engineers and mathematicians are saints, they can be as petty as anyone, but if they wanted to be millionaires, they would have chosen different careers.

      • Re:Small typo (Score:5, Informative)

        by MoonBuggy (611105) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @09:20PM (#35086790) Journal

        He comments on the issue in TFA:

        "I remember thinking, I'm gonna be rich! I'm gonna plunder the lottery!" he says. However, these grandiose dreams soon gave way to more practical concerns. "Once I worked out how much money I could make if this was my full-time job, I got a lot less excited," Srivastava says. "I'd have to travel from store to store and spend 45 seconds cracking each card. I estimated that I could expect to make about $600 a day. That's not bad. But to be honest, I make more as a consultant, and I find consulting to be a lot more interesting than scratch lottery tickets."

        Seems like a decent, down-to-earth guy; he's pretty well off already (six figure salary, if he's making more than $600/day), so I'm sure it's a prospect that was easier for him to forego than most, but it looks like he's got a good balance between the comfort of money and enjoyment of his work.

        • by zill (1690130)
          Obviously he needs a cover story in case IRS makes inquiries about his yachts.
        • by PopeRatzo (965947) * on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @10:12PM (#35087116) Homepage Journal

          I find consulting to be a lot more interesting than scratch lottery tickets.

          Jesus, what a choice to have to make: consulting or scratch lottery tickets.

          Better to throw oneself off a cliff.

        • Re:Small typo (Score:5, Interesting)

          by icebraining (1313345) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @10:19PM (#35087160) Homepage

          The obvious solution is to make a webpage to crack the code, and then make a deal with someone who has a smartphone but makes much less than $600/day.

          • That would be a cool augmented reality app (kindof like that camera-phone sudoku solver app that OCR'd the numbers and overlaid the missing numbers in their correct boxes)

          • by EdIII (1114411)

            I don't see how you could make any money on your own with the complicity of the store clerks. Those tickets are in rolls which present a number of problems:

            1) How long does it take to scan a roll for winning tickets past a certain amount?
            2) How do you maintain the integrity of the roll since you would be pulling out individual tickets?
            3) Employees are usually barred from claiming tickets themselves and I have a hunch that a conspiracy to game the lottery like that is illegal.
            4) The lotteries have already g

        • Back in (Greek) Junior High we went for a one-day school trip to an island (Poros IIRC). The day plan consistend of letting a few dozens of 14-15 year-olds roam around the town unattended. Obviously, one of my group's first stops was at an Arcade, to spend some coins on things like Cadillacs and Dinosaurs or NBA Jam. Another group of friends called us to a back room to check something out. There was an electronic (electromechanic?) gambling machine that had a roullette (but with fewer segments than the clas

      • From TFA:

        His next thought was utterly predictable: "I remember thinking, I'm gonna be rich! I'm gonna plunder the lottery!" he says. However, these grandiose dreams soon gave way to more practical concerns. "Once I worked out how much money I could make if this was my full-time job, I got a lot less excited," Srivastava says. "I'd have to travel from store to store and spend 45 seconds cracking each card. I estimated that I could expect to make about $600 a day. That's not bad. But to be honest, I make more as a consultant, and I find consulting to be a lot more interesting than scratch lottery tickets."

        So, for him, the lottery was not profitable and interesting enough.

        • by dintech (998802)

          This is all very interesting but if you want to earn the big bucks, you start your own lottery.

      • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

        I mean, if they have that mindset and level of intelligence they could easily have gone to a business school and gone on to make millions.

        Middle management and the front seats of taxicabs are littered with the bones of "intelligent" people who've gone to business school. I would bet the percentage of B-school grads who "make millions" is a little lower than you may think.

        I've seen the haunted looks on the poor souls who are about to graduate from the business school at my (rather prestigious) institution.

    • by c6gunner (950153) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:40PM (#35086486)

      How do you tell the difference between an MIT mathematician and a smart MIT mathematician? One talks to the media, the other is a millionaire.

      • by dimeglio (456244)

        The MIT entry exam consists of giving away all you possessions before being admitted. Hence, the statistically low number of affluent MIT educated statisticians. (Un)fortunally, I failed that exam.

      • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @09:24PM (#35086822) Journal

        How do you tell the difference between an MIT mathematician and a smart MIT mathematician? One talks to the media, the other is a millionaire.

        If you'd read the fine article, you'd have seen that he calculated how much he'd earn by using his system and how long it would take - and found that it was far lower than his consulting pay rate. So if he spent time doing it rather than his day job he'd be taking a pay cut.

        Sounds to me like a GOOD mathematician - one who applies math to ALL the aspects of the problem and comes to the right conclusion.

        • by trentblase (717954) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @09:52PM (#35087004)
          Of course he applied economics only halfway. He could have sold the algorithm to someone with lower opportunity cost. Someone who makes $100 a day should be willing to split the $600 with him.
    • Re:Small typo (Score:4, Informative)

      by danlip (737336) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:44PM (#35086524)

      from TFA:

      "Once I worked out how much money I could make if this was my full-time job, I got a lot less excited," Srivastava says. "I'd have to travel from store to store and spend 45 seconds cracking each card. I estimated that I could expect to make about $600 a day. That's not bad. But to be honest, I make more as a consultant, and I find consulting to be a lot more interesting than scratch lottery tickets."

    • by yuriyg (926419)
      This information looks more useful to the convenience store owners and clerks than to MIT educated statisticians. Even knowing the system, it's very hard to just stand there and pick out the tickets that you like, the store clerk would usually just rip off the first ticket from the roll. On the other hand, the clerks themselves have a lot of time to study these. I can image a pretty profitable scheme where the clerk would sell you certain tickets for extra 50% or so...
      • Why sell the tickets. I'd just keep an eye on the next available tickets, and it they were winners, buy them myself. If they were not winners, wait for someone else to buy the losers. Since I'm already at the store, my time is essentially paid for.
    • by 1u3hr (530656) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @11:24PM (#35087450)
      "WIRED " has an interesting story". Fixed that for you.

      Yet again, Slashdot links to some parastic site that copied the original story rather than the source: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/01/ff_lottery/all/1 [wired.com].

      • by 1u3hr (530656) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @11:35PM (#35087488)
        Also, this all happened eight years ago. Here's an article from 2006:

        http://www.cbc.ca/consumer/story/2006/11/21/lottery-probe.html [www.cbc.ca]

        Toronto statistician Mohan Srivastava also discovered a way the tickets could be decoded to predict a winner on the game "Tic Tac Toe" nearly three years ago. Srivastava would look at the numbers on the ticket, and if a sequence of numbers was lined up in tic-tac-toe fashion and were not repeated anywhere else on the ticket, it was likely a winner. "If someone explained the trick to you, I think, I actually know, a child could do it," Srivastava said. He contacted the OLG about the trend, and while the corporation recalled unsold tickets of the game, it never went public with the information.

  • by uvajed_ekil (914487) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:16PM (#35086290)
    This just in, MIT-educated statistician Mohan Srivastava has retired suddenly at a young age and is not taking questions.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:17PM (#35086298)

    Now that's *sunglasses* the ticket.

    YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by spun (1352)

      Where is the "Stab that guy in the face over the Internet" device when you need it?

      • by lul_wat (1623489)
        Looks like all his internet trolling caused him to get hacked *sunglasses* to death.

        YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
      • Looks like someone found his wit *sunglasses* a little too sharp.

        YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!

  • by modmans2ndcoming (929661) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:20PM (#35086328)

    When was the last time you were allowed to look through and then pick the scratch off tickets you wanted from a spindle of tickets behind the counter.

    While the game is flawed, there is no real way to get only the winners.

    • While the game is flawed, there is no real way to get only the winners.

      Unless you work with a store employee. Oh, it would NEVER happen....

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Yeah, no way a guy named Mohan Srivastava would know anyone who works in a 7-eleven.

      • Exactly, given the right cellphone app to decode them, a gas station attendant could clean up.
        • by nschubach (922175)

          They don't even need that. All they have to do is scan the card on those bar code scanners and it will tell you which ones are winners. I haven't seen them in a while (probably because someone figured it out...)

          • Nice idea but it doesn't work. The scan also cancels the ticket for sell. In my state each ticket is scanned prior to sell, along with each roll of tickets being "activated" by scanning the wrapper barcode. So once you set in the store scanning tickets, you have to cash the winning tickets at that store (it is no good anywhere except that store and the state lottery offices once it has been scanned) and the store will have a crapton of losing tickets which have to be paid for and can not be sold. Good luck
    • I think one rules in Ontario is that you get to pick the ticket and not the counter guy.

    • by JWSmythe (446288)

      I was kind of wondering the same thing. Maybe, just maybe, if you were personal friends with someone in the store, they'd let you look through the tickets for the winners. There's very likely a law of some sort about that too. Most likely, you and the employee who assisted with, would end up in jail for conspiracy to defraud the state and/or lottery commission. I'm fairly sure they have to give you the next ticket, not let you pick through the stack until you find one you "like".

      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        No no, you examine the whole roll, write down which ones you want and have the person behind the counter by them for you as they come up. You pay him 10% of the take and you probably more than doubled his income.

    • by LordKronos (470910) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:45PM (#35086532) Homepage

      RTFA

      "Lots of people buy lottery tickets in bulk to give away as prizes for contests," he says. He asked several Toronto retailers if they would object to him buying tickets and then exchanging the unused, unscratched tickets. "Everybody said that would be totally fine. Nobody was even a tiny bit suspicious," he says. "Why not? Because they all assumed the games are unbreakable. So what I would try to do is buy up lots of tickets, run them through my scanning machine, and then try to return the unscratched losers.

    • RTFA and you'll find out how you can look at lots of tickets and take your pick of which to buy.

    • by tixxit (1107127)
      I always see people rifling through a set of cards, trying to "feel out" a winner. Of course, these people aren't statisticians and aren't actually doing anything better than random picks.
    • by Mistlefoot (636417) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @09:16PM (#35086768)
      So:

      Step 1) Be a retailer, or get a job for a retailer, selling lottery tickets. This would get past your "there is no real way to get only the winners"
      Step 2) Take all the scratched tickets that people throw away onsite, and scan them for hints as to how to pick winners.
      Step 3) Buy a bunch of probable winners to see how accurate you are, and if you are accurate, profit.

      Now a few things come to mind.
      Many people like to buy the "new" tickets as they seem to "win" more often. This would be normal if took a few weeks for retailers to get a handle on how to pick the winners. You win more often when "chance" is in play, and less often when the probably winners have been weeded out.

      It would also explain how retailers cash a high percentage of winners, in Canada at least, were this has been in the news for the past few years.
      Here is one such article, and note, this has led to changes in Canada. Seemingly not good enough.
      http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/story.html?id=4be28910-9cec-4785-b471-f37849a29008&k=17633
      • by telso (924323)

        Actually, it has nothing to do with retailers in Canada being a high percentage of winners. What actually happened was that when a customer who won a large prize handed in his or her ticket and the machine beeped, the retailer told the customer he or she won a free ticket and then took the multi-figure winning ticket to the lottery commission pretending he or she bought it. It was plain old fraud, and a number of retailers are currently under indictment for it. (Also, as your article states, the tickets

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This was in Wired Magazine earlier last month.

    http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/01/ff_lottery/all/1

  • by joeflies (529536) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:22PM (#35086344)

    The same article appeared in Feb 2011 issue of Wired [wired.com] even though Lottery Post doesn't seem to go out of its way to attribute the author and cite the issue properly.

    • You're right. I read the this article in wired earlier this week! Even all the images are the same and they didn't remove this line from TFA: "In one of his most recent trials, conducted at the request of Wired," This is real copyright infringement.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Riktov (632)

      Copying others' work without attribution, in a forum dedicated to the idea of reaping riches without working for it? I would have never imagined!

  • They must be dumbing the explanation down. You don't have to be non-random to control the number of winners. You can use a deterministic process to generate all the tickets in a series, and then a true random process to control the order in which the tickets are printed. If they're not doing that, they're really screwing up. Even a fairly dinky computer should be able to store patterns for all the tickets in a Big F'n Array, and use real random numbers to shuffle the Array. Then hit "print".

    • by jschultz410 (583092) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:51PM (#35086576)
      The problem is that he reverse engineered their deterministic process for generating winners and losers and then was able to pick out the winning cards based on the partial information they revealed. The order in which they are printed doesn't really matter. Given any random subset of the cards he could pick the winners out of them at a much higher % than he should have been able to if they were actually random.

      Sounds to me like they should figure the game out in such a way that a real random number generator will generate winners and losers at the desired rates on average and then just rely on the law of averages / large numbers to give them their desired take.

      Forgot to login, sorry for the dup ... :(
    • You can use a deterministic process to generate all the tickets in a series

      If you started at the time of the big bang, such a process wouldn't have finished yet.

      Even a fairly dinky computer should be able to store patterns for all the tickets in a Big F'n Array

      Ha ha.

    • by tixxit (1107127)
      I think you hit on the problem he found; if it was truly randomized (ie. just order), there'd be far more winners than they actually have. This means the set of cards that are likely to win are underrepresented. If there is a pattern they have in common, then you simply need to look for it. This guy figured out that winning tickets are likely to have a high frequency of singleton numbers and chose those.
    • by artor3 (1344997)

      The problem isn't the order of the tickets, its that the tickets have visible info on them that gives away the hidden info. Of course, you're still right that you don't need to be non-random to control the number of winners. Just use a true random process to generate the tickets, and a separate process to analyze the tickets created and hold back any winning tickets once you pass a certain quota (and re-introduce them to the stream at a random point if you fall too far below quota).

  • Who's there?
    Lottery Commission.

    DOH!
  • by Odinlake (1057938) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:32PM (#35086426)
    lawsuit coming in, 5, 4, 3 ....
  • by artor3 (1344997) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:32PM (#35086428)

    After calculating that his average winnings would come out to $600 a day:

    "People often assume that I must be some extremely moral person because I didn't take advantage of the lottery," he says. "I can assure you that that's not the case. I'd simply done the math and concluded that beating the game wasn't worth my time."

    Moral of the story for those who play the lotto: Even if you figure out how to break the game, it still isn't worth playing.

    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      If we estimate 220 working days a year this means he makes more than 132,000 a year. Seems like either he makes quite a bit or he needs to think bigger. Get 10 people all doing this and have him take 50% of the profits.

      • by rm999 (775449)

        I'd guess he would rather expend his energy contributing to society rather than cheating a lottery. It's the difference between creating money and creating wealth. The people who concentrate on the latter tend to be more successful in the long run.

        • by h4rr4r (612664)

          Wow, you are naive. The name Bernie Madoff mean anything to you? And don't act like that finally caught up to him, he protected everyone else and will probably be released in 10 years when he is sick and old. Maybe High Frequency trading rings a bell? Perhaps you have heard of the tricks Microsoft used to gain and keep a desktop monopoly?

          • by artor3 (1344997) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @09:04PM (#35086684)

            Sure, but those are big crooks. Ripping off the lotto to the tune of $150k a year makes you a small crook, and small crooks do big time.

            • by h4rr4r (612664)

              Which is why I suggested having lots of people doing it for you. Then you might be able to make enough for the proper campaign contributions. Maybe not though.

            • You can steal lot more with a pen than with a gun, and even more if you can order folks with pens to do your stealing for you.
        • by Microlith (54737)

          That and they'd probably arrest him at some point.

        • by drsmithy (35869)

          I'd guess he would rather expend his energy contributing to society rather than cheating a lottery.

          No need to guess:

          "People often assume that I must be some extremely moral person because I didn't take advantage of the lottery," he says. "I can assure you that that's not the case. I'd simply done the math and concluded that beating the game wasn't worth my time."

          It's the difference between creating money and creating wealth. The people who concentrate on the latter tend to be more successful in the long

      • lotto and big slot wins are tax-free within Canada

    • by MBCook (132727)

      I thought that was pretty cool too. But he said it took 45 seconds or so to figure out if a ticket was a winner, and that was the big issue. But that was back in '03. Today, you could easily program a smartphone to recognize the pattern on the ticker and figure out for you if the ticket is a winner in a second or two, easily increasing the rate you could do this.

      It would still be hard work and I'd imagine it would be very boring and tedious to do every day, but you could do it faster today.

      • by Skidborg (1585365)
        The big thing would be that you would still have to wait around the store for the winning tickets to come up so you could buy them.
      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        Couldn't you just buy them in bulk and return them like the article says? Then you can use a machine to scan and select winners and losers. Then just return the losers and cash in your winners.

    • by tyme (6621)

      um, that's between $150,000 and $215,000 a year, depending on if we are talking about only working days or not. While that's not CEO-money, it's nothing to sneeze at (it puts you in the top 20% of households in the U.S.A.). I'd say that would be worth my time, and the time of just about everyone that I know, assuming that you could pull it off in no more than 40 hours per week.

      • by glwtta (532858)
        it puts you in the top 20% of households in the U.S.A.

        Wouldn't that put you in the top 3% or so? Only need $90k for top 20%.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Do you know any stores that will allow you to inspect their scratch-off lotto tickets to pick out the specific ones on the roll you'd like to buy? How would you pull this off?

    • by kabloom (755503)

      It wasn't, for him, on that game, but the article goes on to speculate that it's extremely profitable for some people.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @08:59PM (#35086638)

    Because I am calling you from my boat, BITCH!

  • by mbenzi (410594) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @09:09PM (#35086718)

    I read the Wired article; the amazing thing is he did this with sample size of two.

  • by dimer0 (461593) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @09:56PM (#35087028)
    After playing quite a few of these games, I have seen this pattern too. I can look at a ticket (I'm a fan of the crossword game), and look for the less-common letters, and know basically whether or not I stand a good chance of winning. The problem here though - let's say I buy 5 tickets and don't scratch them because they all appear to be losers. What gas station have you been to that will take them back, or exchange for other tickets? None. You're buying the next 5 tickets off the roll. So what if you know that 1 out of the 5 has a really good shot at winning - you already paid for the other 4 and lost.
  • Charity (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Myopic (18616) on Wednesday February 02, 2011 @10:02PM (#35087066)

    If I were him, I might have gone down to the local soup kitchen and told a couple homeless people about it, and given them each a few tickets to demonstrate it. That community could have benefited for a few weeks or months before the lotto figured it out.

    • by Riktov (632)

      Just make sure you do it at a soup kitchen in an area where you'll never go or be recognized again. Last thing you want is a bunch of winos hounding you down yelling "Give us more of those lotto tickets!"

In every non-trivial program there is at least one bug.

Working...