The One Reason Why You Should Never, Ever Play Powerball Is Rooted In The Numbers

Let's get this undeniable fact out of the way: \$1.5 billion is a tempting number. As FiveThirtyEight points out, Powerball has become the first North American lottery to hit a jackpot over \$1 billion. Who wouldn't want to win that? But it seems that the very popularity of the unprecedented jackpot is the same reason you should never play Powerball. Your chances of winning are pretty much nil.

But someone has to win it, right? That's the common argument for lottery enthusiasts, and one that The Atlantic's Ian Bogost tried to rationalize in his essay "The Sublime Beauty of Powerball."

To play Powerball is to participate in a collective ritual that pays homage to the enormously improbable things that nevertheless happen all the time. Very large numbers can be tamed when millions of people work together, reducing the odds from one in 292.2 million down to one in three. And while it’s possible to appreciate that spectacle from the sidelines while still scorning the lottery for duping people, there is an experience that comes from not just observation but participation. When someone attends a concert or a sports match, they do so partly to participate in a spectacle together. When you buy a lottery ticket you do something similar. You say, I want to be a part of this sublime but preposterous run at the improbable. Two dollars is, after all, not a whole lot of money for that.

That's a good point, to be certain. There's something to be said about the shared human experience of chasing money that we only win on chance and which we likely don't deserve. But let's turn to facts (as Bogost did for much of his article) and understand the real mathematical probability of an individual winning the massive Powerball jackpot.

Wired calculated the odds of winning as one in 292 million, a figure derived from the five numbers you pick (ranged 1 through 69) and the final "quick pick" ball, rooted in the last position, which could be anywhere from 1 to 26. Out of all of the possible combinations, that puts your chances at a mega longshot.

But still, there's the possibility of smaller payouts, right? Based on the combination of numbers or certain numbers that you select, you should be able to take away some small part of the pot, even if you don't snag the whole enchilada. But even that logic is flawed. To drive the point home, The Los Angeles Times created a simulator of the Powerball drawing that takes a \$100 budget and simulates how much you'd win by playing all of it. I gave it a shot. In the end, in my simulation, I spent \$112 and won \$12, netting a whopping \$100 loss.

So why shouldn't you play Powerball? Because even the chance of winning any money is pretty slim. And we all know that \$2 could buy you some pretty sinful value menu fast food. Even that seems like better money spent.

Image: Los Angeles Times