If you enjoyed the story of the MIT Blackjack Team — the movie “21” and/or the book on which it was based, Ben Mezrich’s “Bringing Down the House” — then you’ll really enjoy this recent story from WIRED.
The story centers on MIT alum Mohan Srivastava ’79. Srivastava, a Course 12 grad who later wrote the textbook on applied geostatistics, now runs his own consulting company in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. One day, the story goes, he won $3 on a “tic-tac-toe” scratch lottery ticket he received as a gift, and started thinking about how the algorithm behind the tickets worked.
“I remember telling myself that the Ontario Lottery is a multibillion-dollar-a-year business,” he says. “They must know what they’re doing, right?”
That night, however, he realized that the voice was right: The tic-tac-toe lottery was seriously flawed. It took a few hours of studying his tickets and some statistical sleuthing, but he 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 knew the secret code.
See if you can figure out the “secret code” within the unscratched Ontario Lottery ticket pictured here. Here’s a hint: this is a winning ticket, and the tic-tac-toe occurs in the third game down in the right-hand column. When you give up, check out Srivastava’s method.
So, did Srivastava take the lottery for millions, like the MIT Blackjack Team took Las Vegas for millions?
“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.”
Instead of secretly plundering the game, he decided to go to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. Srivastava thought its top officials might want to know about his discovery. Who knows, maybe they’d even hire him to give them statistical advice. “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.”
Maybe there’s something to be said for the old saying, “The Lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math.”