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Feature

A person holds up two Powerball tickets in front of her face.

Even with two tickets in hand, your odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are still slim to none--probably closer to none.

U mathematician offers dose of reality for chances of winning Powerball

Odds of hitting Powerball jackpot are one in 146,107,962

By Patty Mattern

February 16, 2006

Doug Arnold, director of the University of Minnesota's Institute for Mathematics and Its Applications, had a dose of reality for people who were buying Powerball tickets recently. "You have a seven times higher chance of being killed in a car accident if you drive one mile to the store for a ticket and one mile back home than you do of winning this Powerball jackpot," Arnold says. If that hasn't cast a cloud over your hopes of winning, he offers more bad news. "For an average American, the chance that you will die in the next 30 seconds is greater than the chance that your Powerball ticket will hit the jackpot," he says. When the jackpot reaches highs such as $365 million--the largest in U.S. lottery history--Arnold does countless media interviews about Powerball from a mathematician's perspective.

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"You would need to buy 101 million randomly selected tickets in order to have a 50 percent chance of winning the jackpot. You would have to buy one ticket per minute for 193 years to purchase that many tickets," Arnold says. "And don't forget that the cash value of the jackpot is only $177 million, and that gets reduced to $120 million after federal and state taxes." "Your odds of hitting the jackpot are one in 146,107,962 to be precise," Arnold says. "Those are pretty long odds. Think of it this way: you pay your dollar, you have the fun of imagining what it would be like to win until the drawing, and then your dollar disappears without a trace. To all intents and purposes that captures [the Powerball experience]." Many people either didn't hear those odds or chose to ignore them, because long lines to buy Powerball tickets formed in stores over the last week. Most people were not buying the tickets as a serious investment, he says. "They are buying tickets because they are a chance to dream. It's for entertainment," Arnold says.

"For an average American, the chance that you will die in the next 30 seconds is greater than the chance that your Powerball ticket will hit the jackpot," he says.

However, the value of a Powerball ticket purchased prior to this Saturday's drawing is nearly $1 or face value--more or less depending on how many tickets are sold--whereas normally the ticket is more like 50 cents on the dollar, he says. However, return on investment is not the only relevant factor. "There's also risk," Arnold says, "and both mathematicians and financial advisors will tell you this is about as risky of an investment as you can imagine." What were the odds of winning the $365 million Powerball jackpot Saturday night? "If they've sold 100 million tickets, there is a 50 percent chance that no one will win, a 35 percent that there will be one winner and a 15 percent chance that there will be two or more winners," Arnold says. How many Powerball tickets will Arnold purchase? Zero. He won't purchase one just for fun? "No, I guess when you get too analytical about it the fun drains out of it," Arnold says. "But I have a good time talking about it."