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Calculating Your Powerball Odds

If you’re playing tonight’s $500-million Powerball lottery, good luck. You’ll need it. How much luck exactly?

According to Aaron Abrams, assistant professor of mathematics at Washington and Lee, you are 100 times more likely to die of a flesh-eating virus than you are of winning the lottery.

But, as Aaron has told numerous media interviewers in the past 48 hours, people still play because it’s fun.

Aaron has been in demand this week because of a paper that he wrote with a colleague some years back when he was at Emory University. That paper, “Finding Good Bets in the Lottery, and Why You Shouldn’t Take Them,” was published in the January 2010 issue of the American Mathematical Monthly and won the 2011 Lester R. Ford Award as one of five “articles of expository excellence.”

When the Mega Millions jackpot approached a lottery record of $640 million in March 2012, Aaron’s phone started to ring, and he was interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered, CNN, and BBC’s Newshour. He was quoted far and wide about the astronomical odds facing lottery players.

Fast forward seven months to this week, and the media discovered that Aaron had moved from Atlanta to Lexington. And again the phone started ringing. He did a Fox News interview (which has not yet run) and then local spots for Roanoke’s WDBJ7 (with W&L alumnus Joe Dashiell ’80) and with WVTF’s Beverly Amsler with others in the offing. You can watch Aaron’s interview with WDBJ7 here and listen to the WVTF piece below:

In addition to the flesh-eating virus response, Aaron offered this additional illustration that appears on WDBJ7’s website: “Imagine sometimes in the next four years, a bell is going to ring. It’s going to go off for one second. You have to guess right now when that’s going to happen. What year, month, day, hour, minute, second. You write it down and you place your bet. The odds of your winning that are about the same odds of you winning the jackpot.”

Now, if you haven’t yet bought your Powerball ticket, will you? Aaron says he probably won’t.

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