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Playing the odds. June 9, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was standing in line at our local grocery’s lottery line yesterday when the man in front of me asked for $20 in tickets—20 tickets—for today’s Cash 5 lottery game. Cash 5 has a smaller prize than, say, Powerball or MegaMillions, so presumably the odds of winning are higher. And the prize had crept up from its $125,000 baseline to over a million dollars. Our friend Ben could see why the man was excited.

When my turn came, I asked for a single ticket ($1) for the same Cash 5 game. “Just one?” the cashier asked. “It only takes one,” I answered. “That’s what they say,” said a guy in the next line. “But my wife and I never win anything.”

Well, neither do Silence Dogood and I. At least, not in terms of money. The odds against winning are, after all, astronomical. As our good friend Rudy once pointed out, “You have as much chance of winning as of having Skylab fall on your head.” Our friend Ben was extremely humiliated when someone pointed out that Skylab had actually returned to Earth several decades earlier, highlighting both Rudy’s sarcasm and my own ignorance. Ouch!

So why do we put our (single) dollar down? We try to buy a $1 lottery ticket every day. It’s not hard to do the math: That’s a $365 investment every year for what seems to be no return on investment, a total net loss. But our calculation is somewhat different: We’re investing $365 a year in pure, unadulterated hope.

To put this in perspective, let’s say you buy a coffee or latte or whatever from Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts on your way to work every morning, or grab a Coke or Pepsi from the vending machine or grocery cooler to enjoy with your lunch. More than $1? You betcha. What if you decide to go to the movies once a week with the kids? At $9-plus a ticket (let’s not even think about 3-D or iMAX), plus drinks, popcorn, and candy from the counter vendor, you’re talking about $80-plus for four. A week. Silence and I don’t spend our money on coffee, soda, or first-run movies (if we want to see them, we’ll catch them through Netflix later for $15/month for as many as we can watch). Instead, we spend our $365 a year buying hope. 

Our friend Ben thinks of the lottery as the cheapest form of hope. For only a dollar a day, you could win financial freedom for life! What other investment offers this sort of payback? Imagine spending a dollar a day for an elixir that would let you get up every morning thinking, “Today I might have won millions of dollars and never have to worry about anything ever again!” If you could bottle this, you’d make more money than Warren Buffett and Bill Gates combined.

Silence and our friend Ben are not what you’d call morning people, so it takes a lot to get us going in the morning. The promise of the lottery and financial independence really helps get us out of bed in a better frame of mind. And if, as usually happens, we don’t win? There’s always tomorrow. Another day, and hope renewed. It was just a dollar, after all, less than a single 16-ounce Coke. (And, as Silence points out, without the calories!) No disappointment, just eternal hope. We think that’s priceless.

Yes, you’re right if you think we failed to win today’s Cash 5 drawing. Our friend Ben hopes the guy who plumped down $20 on tickets won. But you can bet the prospect brightened our day, and we’re already looking forward to tomorrow.

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