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Neman: Why you shouldn't gamble, and why I sometimes do

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Powerball

The odds of winning a Powerball drawing are an utterly ludicrous 292 million to 1.

I’m thinking of a number between one and 10. Can you guess it?

You can find the number I am thinking of in three more paragraphs. I’m putting it there so you won’t immediately see it if you’re trying to guess the number.

Got it wrong, didn’t you? You only had 10 choices, and you picked the wrong one. And not just you, but almost everyone else, too.

If you had placed a $1 bet and correctly guessed the number, I would pay you $10 if we were going strictly by the odds. If you were playing the numbers, I would pay you $6. If you were paying the lottery, I would pay you $5.

The number, incidentally, was 1. I know you missed it. So it’s a good thing you didn’t place a bet.

All of which is a way of bringing up the fact that I went to Atlantic City last weekend. A dear friend turned 50, and wanted to celebrate with a gaggle of us in one of her favorite places.

This weekend, she is in her other favorite place, Las Vegas, celebrating the same birthday with a different gaggle who live farther west. Atlantic City and Las Vegas: She has, as she puts it, a gambling “hobby.”

I do not. I have never been to Las Vegas, except once to change planes, and I never left the airport. My wife, incidentally, put a single $10 bill into an airport slot machine, devices that notoriously never pay anything, and she won $40. Me, I got a cheeseburger.

I have been to Atlantic City a few times, because this same dear friend keeps having birthdays, but I’d rather look at the Monopoly streets (North Carolina Avenue — that’s a green!) than gamble.

I don’t have anything against gambling, though I do worry about my friends when it becomes a hobby. I even used to go to the occasional casino there or elsewhere and play poker, a game I enjoy.

I enjoy it because it is a social occasion, a chance to joke and laugh with friends, and maybe sip a beer. I stopped playing at casinos because I noticed that no one there was having fun. They were there to make money, and most were failing. There is an air of quiet desperation around a casino poker table.

I’d like to be able to say I don’t gamble because I work too hard to fritter away my income — but to be honest, this isn’t hard work. And I don’t even avoid gambling because I’m cheap.

I don’t gamble because I understand how math works.

The odds are always against you — always — at a casino. Casinos aren’t in it for charity; they work the odds so that for every dollar you put into a slot machine, you get about 90 cents back.

Even in games in which you aren’t playing against the house, such as poker, the casino still takes around 10% of every pot, up to a certain amount. So you have to win 10% more than you started with just to break even.

I do, however, sometimes buy a lottery ticket — also because I understand how math works.

The odds of winning a Powerball drawing, for instance, are an utterly ludicrous 292 million to 1. I find it hard even to conceive of a number like 292 million.

And you? You couldn’t even pick the right number between 1 and 10. Think about that, and then think about picking a number between 1 and 292,000,000.

“Somebody has to win,” people say, and that is true. But it won’t be you.

“You can’t win if you don’t play,” people say, and that is also true. But you also can’t win if you do play.

And yet I sometimes find myself playing the lottery. I play when the odds favor me, though at 292 million to 1 the very idea is ridiculous.

The odds favor you when the payout is greater than what statisticians call the expected value. For instance, a lottery ticket costs $2. If you multiply the odds (292 million) by the cost ($2), you end up with an expected value of $584 million.

If the payout is less than $584 million, it isn’t worth buying a ticket. But if the payout is above that, then the odds are technically in your favor. But only technically. You’re still staring at laughable odds of 292 million to 1.

I know that, but I buy a ticket when the payout becomes high enough. For a couple of bucks, I’m buying a dream.

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