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Statistician cracks secret code behind lottery tickets

Insider BuzzInsider Buzz: Statistician cracks secret code behind lottery tickets
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Is the apparent randomness of the scratch ticket just a facade, a mathematical lie?

The call came around 3 a.m. Toronto time, which was midnight in Nevada where Doug Hartzell was sleeping. It was his old friend, Mohan Srivastava, phoning from Canada.

"He called me and said, 'Man, I think I'm losing it. But I see a pattern in scratch lottery tickets,' " said Hartzell, recalling that 2003 conversation.

"My reaction almost instantly was like: I'm sure he's right."

Over their three decades of friendship, Hartzell has come to accept that Srivastava is simply smarter than most people. So when the 52-year-old geological statistician told him he could identify a winning scratch lottery ticket — without the use of pennies or fingernails — Hartzell believed him.

"There's been so many things he's done that after the fact, people go, 'Oh yeah, why didn't I see that?' " Hartzell said. "But Mo has one of those rare minds."

Most people see a random jumble of numbers when they look at a scratch lottery ticket like Ontario's "Tic Tac Toe" game. But for Srivastava, he saw that certain numbers appeared only once in the grids — and when these "singletons" lined up three in a row, chances were the ticket was a winner.

He calculated this held true 95 per cent of the time and notified the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. Within days, they pulled the game — the first time in OLG history a recall was prompted by a customer-identified flaw.

At the time, Srivastava's discovery went largely unnoticed but today, the reserved but genial scientist is enjoying a brief moment in the spotlight after appearing in this month's issue ofWired magazine. In the article, Srivastava discusses what he considers flaws in the lottery industry and, at the magazine's request, conducts another test of his code-busting logic. He chose 20 tickets currently on sale in Ontario, predicting six would be winners. Four of them had payouts.

The odds of this happening are about one in 50, Srivastava told the Star, which is "pretty unusual."

"I think there is still a problem," he said.

As Srivastava's name now makes the rounds in the blogosphere, he is being touted as the statistician who outsmarted the government, the game and the multi-billion dollar lottery industry.

Srivastava insists others could have arrived at the same discovery he did, and chances are others have. But for Hartzell, his friend is the one who pulled it off — and tried to fix the problem to boot.

"Theoretically, someone else could have figured it out but the short answer is, Mo's the one that did," Hartzell said. "He's a numbers theory guy, he likes puzzles . . . (and) when he stumbles across these things, he can't put it down."

The son of a Scottish homemaker and an electrical engineer from India, Srivastava admits he was a nerd growing up. As a high school student in Elmira, Srivastava spent many a lunch hour upside down in his locker, stuffed there by the bigger boys.

"I was a geek," he says cheerfully.

After receiving degrees from MIT and Stanford University, Srivastava began a career as a geostatistical consultant, helping international mining companies determine where to point their drills.

His job entails using data to extrapolate how much wealth might be buried underground. For Srivastava, the skills he uses for work are the same ones he applied to cracking the Tic Tac Toe game.

But it was also "a happy coalescence" of other experiences that helped Srivastava arrive at his lottery epiphany. First of all, there was the computer class he took in high school; one of his assignments was to write a computer program for none other than tic tac toe.

Curious by nature, Srivastava also had a natural interest in cryptology, one further reinforced by his friendship with mathematician William Tutte, a British codebreaker who cracked a high-level Nazi code during World War II.

"I had a way of thinking about (the lottery ticket) like a message," he explained. "And whether it's a winner or not — that was the message."

All these factors came into play in June 2003, when Srivastava scratched his first lottery ticket, given to him as a gag gift.

He won $3. After a momentary wave of "child-like joy" subsided, the gears in his brain began to click.

"I started wondering how they're produced," he said. "By the time I got to the Petro-Canada (to redeem the prize), I knew how I would write the computer program."

Srivastava thought this was the end to his ponderings. But later, walking past the same Petro-Canada, he heard a voice in his head: "But if you do it that way, if you program it that way, there will be a flaw in the game," he said. "After that, I knew the trick."

Srivastava bought a few more tickets and saw that the computer program behind these Tic Tac Toe games also produced the same flaw. He bought 25 more tickets over the next few days, all from different stores, to reassure his inner statistician that this was more than just a fluke. It was.

Naturally, Srivastava spent some time at this point determining how he could profit from his newfound insight. A quick calculation showed this would be more hassle than it was worth.

"I realized this wasn't going to be a big payout," he said. "Once I realized that this wasn't a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I was like, 'Who do I report this too?' "

Srivastava eventually connected with the OLG but they kept brushing off his concerns. So he decided he would show them the problem in a "live test."

Srivastava bought 20 tickets and tied them, unscratched, into two bundles — the winners and losers. Just in case the rubber bands broke and the tickets got mixed up, he wrote a cover letter listing the serial numbers of each ticket and what his prediction was for it.

He couriered the package to the OLG. At this point, he finally felt free of the obsession that had gripped his imagination for days.

"I remember dropping them off and actually feeling that sense of this whole thing bleeding away," he laughed. "I was like, let it go. This is about as crazy as it gets."

But two hours later, he got a phone call. It was a member of the OLG's security team.

"The first thing he says is, 'We need to talk,' " Srivastava recalled.

Within days, the OLG pulled the game from their 10,000 retailers. Srivastava spent the next few months testing other lottery tickets from around North America, inputting data into spreadsheets and trying to determine how systemic the problem was. In 2007, he notified the OLG of a second scratch ticket that was possibly flawed, the popular Super Bingo game. The ticket was recalled as a "precautionary measure" and an independent audit was unable to prove it could be broken, said OLG spokesman Tony Bitonti.

In the end, he said, none of the lottery corporations or ticket printers were interested in fixing the problem he identified. The issue was brushed off as a "fluke" and one American ticket printer even threatened him with litigation, he said.

Today, Srivastava says it's quite likely flawed tickets are still on store shelves. He sees potential for greater consequences —evidence suggests flawed lottery tickets are being exploited for money laundering — and is confused by the lack of will to remedy a problem he helped identify.

"If there are some people that are skimming winners, or more able to skim winners, what that means for everyone else is they're getting more losers," he said. "There's kind of a cruel unfairness for the people left over who weren't in on the trick."

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News story photo(Click to display in gallery)

News story photo(Click to display in gallery)

News story photo(Click to display in gallery)

News story photo(Click to display in gallery)

Toronto Star

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39 comments. Last comment 4 years ago by DoctorEw220.
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RJOh's avatar - chipmunk
mid-Ohio
United States
Member #9
March 24, 2001
17935 Posts
Online
Posted: February 2, 2011, 2:42 pm - IP Logged

Even if someone figured out which tickets in a roll were more likely to be winners, they couldn't buy them out of the middle of a row of tickets unless they were a clerk or store manager selling them and waiting for the winners to come.  And even if they were smart enough to spot such a flaw in the design of the tickets, they would probably (as he suggests) have a more profitable way of making a living.

* you don't need more tickets, just the right ticket * 
* your best chance at winning a lottery jackpot is to buy a ticket * 
     Wink 

    Harve$t Moon's avatar - 5str

    United States
    Member #76986
    July 10, 2009
    6235 Posts
    Offline
    Posted: February 2, 2011, 2:44 pm - IP Logged

    Is the apparent randomness of the scratch ticket just a facade, a mathematical lie?

    The call came around 3 a.m. Toronto time, which was midnight in Nevada where Doug Hartzell was sleeping. It was his old friend, Mohan Srivastava, phoning from Canada.

    "He called me and said, 'Man, I think I'm losing it. But I see a pattern in scratch lottery tickets,' " said Hartzell, recalling that 2003 conversation.

    "My reaction almost instantly was like: I'm sure he's right."

    Over their three decades of friendship, Hartzell has come to accept that Srivastava is simply smarter than most people. So when the 52-year-old geological statistician told him he could identify a winning scratch lottery ticket — without the use of pennies or fingernails — Hartzell believed him.

    "There's been so many things he's done that after the fact, people go, 'Oh yeah, why didn't I see that?' " Hartzell said. "But Mo has one of those rare minds."

    Most people see a random jumble of numbers when they look at a scratch lottery ticket like Ontario's "Tic Tac Toe" game. But for Srivastava, he saw that certain numbers appeared only once in the grids — and when these "singletons" lined up three in a row, chances were the ticket was a winner.

    He calculated this held true 95 per cent of the time and notified the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. Within days, they pulled the game — the first time in OLG history a recall was prompted by a customer-identified flaw.

    At the time, Srivastava's discovery went largely unnoticed but today, the reserved but genial scientist is enjoying a brief moment in the spotlight after appearing in this month's issue ofWired magazine. In the article, Srivastava discusses what he considers flaws in the lottery industry and, at the magazine's request, conducts another test of his code-busting logic. He chose 20 tickets currently on sale in Ontario, predicting six would be winners. Four of them had payouts.

    The odds of this happening are about one in 50, Srivastava told the Star, which is "pretty unusual."

    "I think there is still a problem," he said.

    As Srivastava's name now makes the rounds in the blogosphere, he is being touted as the statistician who outsmarted the government, the game and the multi-billion dollar lottery industry.

    Srivastava insists others could have arrived at the same discovery he did, and chances are others have. But for Hartzell, his friend is the one who pulled it off — and tried to fix the problem to boot.

    "Theoretically, someone else could have figured it out but the short answer is, Mo's the one that did," Hartzell said. "He's a numbers theory guy, he likes puzzles . . . (and) when he stumbles across these things, he can't put it down."

    The son of a Scottish homemaker and an electrical engineer from India, Srivastava admits he was a nerd growing up. As a high school student in Elmira, Srivastava spent many a lunch hour upside down in his locker, stuffed there by the bigger boys.

    "I was a geek," he says cheerfully.

    After receiving degrees from MIT and Stanford University, Srivastava began a career as a geostatistical consultant, helping international mining companies determine where to point their drills.

    His job entails using data to extrapolate how much wealth might be buried underground. For Srivastava, the skills he uses for work are the same ones he applied to cracking the Tic Tac Toe game.

    But it was also "a happy coalescence" of other experiences that helped Srivastava arrive at his lottery epiphany. First of all, there was the computer class he took in high school; one of his assignments was to write a computer program for none other than tic tac toe.

    Curious by nature, Srivastava also had a natural interest in cryptology, one further reinforced by his friendship with mathematician William Tutte, a British codebreaker who cracked a high-level Nazi code during World War II.

    "I had a way of thinking about (the lottery ticket) like a message," he explained. "And whether it's a winner or not — that was the message."

    All these factors came into play in June 2003, when Srivastava scratched his first lottery ticket, given to him as a gag gift.

    He won $3. After a momentary wave of "child-like joy" subsided, the gears in his brain began to click.

    "I started wondering how they're produced," he said. "By the time I got to the Petro-Canada (to redeem the prize), I knew how I would write the computer program."

    Srivastava thought this was the end to his ponderings. But later, walking past the same Petro-Canada, he heard a voice in his head: "But if you do it that way, if you program it that way, there will be a flaw in the game," he said. "After that, I knew the trick."

    Srivastava bought a few more tickets and saw that the computer program behind these Tic Tac Toe games also produced the same flaw. He bought 25 more tickets over the next few days, all from different stores, to reassure his inner statistician that this was more than just a fluke. It was.

    Naturally, Srivastava spent some time at this point determining how he could profit from his newfound insight. A quick calculation showed this would be more hassle than it was worth.

    "I realized this wasn't going to be a big payout," he said. "Once I realized that this wasn't a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I was like, 'Who do I report this too?' "

    Srivastava eventually connected with the OLG but they kept brushing off his concerns. So he decided he would show them the problem in a "live test."

    Srivastava bought 20 tickets and tied them, unscratched, into two bundles — the winners and losers. Just in case the rubber bands broke and the tickets got mixed up, he wrote a cover letter listing the serial numbers of each ticket and what his prediction was for it.

    He couriered the package to the OLG. At this point, he finally felt free of the obsession that had gripped his imagination for days.

    "I remember dropping them off and actually feeling that sense of this whole thing bleeding away," he laughed. "I was like, let it go. This is about as crazy as it gets."

    But two hours later, he got a phone call. It was a member of the OLG's security team.

    "The first thing he says is, 'We need to talk,' " Srivastava recalled.

    Within days, the OLG pulled the game from their 10,000 retailers. Srivastava spent the next few months testing other lottery tickets from around North America, inputting data into spreadsheets and trying to determine how systemic the problem was. In 2007, he notified the OLG of a second scratch ticket that was possibly flawed, the popular Super Bingo game. The ticket was recalled as a "precautionary measure" and an independent audit was unable to prove it could be broken, said OLG spokesman Tony Bitonti.

    In the end, he said, none of the lottery corporations or ticket printers were interested in fixing the problem he identified. The issue was brushed off as a "fluke" and one American ticket printer even threatened him with litigation, he said.

    Today, Srivastava says it's quite likely flawed tickets are still on store shelves. He sees potential for greater consequences —evidence suggests flawed lottery tickets are being exploited for money laundering — and is confused by the lack of will to remedy a problem he helped identify.

    "If there are some people that are skimming winners, or more able to skim winners, what that means for everyone else is they're getting more losers," he said. "There's kind of a cruel unfairness for the people left over who weren't in on the trick."

    News story photo(Click to display full-size in gallery)

    News story photo(Click to display in gallery)

    News story photo(Click to display in gallery)

    News story photo(Click to display in gallery)

    News story photo(Click to display in gallery)

    "...the lottery corporation needs to control the number of winning tickets. The game can't be truly random. Instead, it has to generate the illusion of randomness while actually being carefully determined."

    The system is slowing unraveling, but the industry is here to stay! It will just get more clever.


      United States
      Member #103159
      December 31, 2010
      24 Posts
      Offline
      Posted: February 2, 2011, 2:45 pm - IP Logged

      I have lost everything i got on the lottery. I know I'm gonna get them oneday. The lottery is a rippoff pplz. I regret that played

        waltoy's avatar - Lottery-050.jpg
        Miami Garden Fl
        United States
        Member #103962
        January 7, 2011
        55 Posts
        Offline
        Posted: February 2, 2011, 2:53 pm - IP Logged

        I'm going to play until i get mine and i know  i will get mine soon, and very soon,cant waitHurray!

          Jon D's avatar - calotterylogo
          Los Angeles, California
          United States
          Member #103816
          January 5, 2011
          1530 Posts
          Offline
          Posted: February 2, 2011, 3:03 pm - IP Logged

          I never liked those scratch games with the exposed elements, these "extended play" games like crossword, bingo and tic-tac-toe.

          Mainly because it took too <snip> long to figure out if you won! And that translucent blue covering over the letters was sticky and messy, unlike the dry scratch off for regular scratch games that brushes away. Played them couple of times and then never again.

          Now with this report, I have one more reason to hate those types of scratch-off games, the higher potential for fraud.

          This post has been automatically changed by the Lottery Post computer system to remove inappropriate content and/or spam.

            Avatar
            New Member
            Ottawa
            Canada
            Member #58192
            February 5, 2008
            3 Posts
            Offline
            Posted: February 2, 2011, 3:04 pm - IP Logged

            Even if someone figured out which tickets in a roll were more likely to be winners, they couldn't buy them out of the middle of a row of tickets unless they were a clerk or store manager selling them and waiting for the winners to come.  And even if they were smart enough to spot such a flaw in the design of the tickets, they would probably (as he suggests) have a more profitable way of making a living.

            Retailers here have trays where they rip tickets from the roll and put on display for sales so the customer picks what ever ticket he wants.

            So the customer never sees the roll.

              sully16's avatar - sharan
              Listens to the wind
              Michigan
              United States
              Member #81740
              October 28, 2009
              19927 Posts
              Offline
              Posted: February 2, 2011, 3:52 pm - IP Logged

              "...the lottery corporation needs to control the number of winning tickets. The game can't be truly random. Instead, it has to generate the illusion of randomness while actually being carefully determined."

              The system is slowing unraveling, but the industry is here to stay! It will just get more clever.

              I agree, I can only wonder what kind of turmoil will be created as people go to buy scratchers, when this gets around , and it will ,we know now.

              There's only one US Flag

                Avatar
                Kentucky
                United States
                Member #32652
                February 14, 2006
                5512 Posts
                Offline
                Posted: February 2, 2011, 3:56 pm - IP Logged

                Even if someone figured out which tickets in a roll were more likely to be winners, they couldn't buy them out of the middle of a row of tickets unless they were a clerk or store manager selling them and waiting for the winners to come.  And even if they were smart enough to spot such a flaw in the design of the tickets, they would probably (as he suggests) have a more profitable way of making a living.

                A store owner or a clerk would have access to the tickets and remove what they believed to be the winning tickets and sell the rest. They would know amount of the prize and wouldn't buy the free tickets or tickets that paid off in equal value and sell them to customers. If their method had a 60% accuracy rate, they would make a nice profit.

                "And even if they were smart enough to spot such a flaw in the design of the tickets, they would probably (as he suggests) have a more profitable way of making a living."

                It would depend on the sales volume of the store but remember when the Ohio Lottery replaced Super Lotto Plus with Lot 'O Play because their Bingo scratch-offs were so popular. Those Bingo tickets had the same design as the tic tac toe games in the article. I don't know about making a living but a clerk or store owner could have supplemented their income nicely.

                  Avatar
                  Kentucky
                  United States
                  Member #32652
                  February 14, 2006
                  5512 Posts
                  Offline
                  Posted: February 2, 2011, 4:03 pm - IP Logged

                  I agree, I can only wonder what kind of turmoil will be created as people go to buy scratchers, when this gets around , and it will ,we know now.

                  Many state lotteries are using vending machines and maybe because they knew that problem existed. They may have instructed their retailer not to buy back unscratched tickets too.

                  The scandal would be acknowledging their games were flawed and this way they could quietly go about their business as if it never happened.

                    RL-RANDOMLOGIC's avatar - DiscoBallGlowing

                    United States
                    Member #59354
                    March 13, 2008
                    2213 Posts
                    Offline
                    Posted: February 2, 2011, 4:08 pm - IP Logged

                    Random does not exist,  it just seems like random when we don't know all the details.  I think I heard

                    this somewhere before.

                    RL

                      time*treat's avatar - radar

                      United States
                      Member #13130
                      March 30, 2005
                      2171 Posts
                      Offline
                      Posted: February 2, 2011, 4:49 pm - IP Logged

                      The stores around here sell scratchers right off the roll from clear plastic display cases. ALL of the "YOURS" and "THEIRS" numbers on the ticket are covered, and I've never seen anyone try to buy tickets out of sequence.

                      Best line:

                      Srivastava: "People often assume that I must be some extremely moral person ... I can assure you that that's not the case." Green laugh

                      That's what you want to hear from a statistician. He has a future career in calculating gov't CPI numbers. LOL

                      In neo-conned Amerika, bank robs you.
                      Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms should be the name of a convenience store, not a govnoment agency.

                        Guru101's avatar - rw6jhh
                        Indiana
                        United States
                        Member #48725
                        January 7, 2007
                        1841 Posts
                        Offline
                        Posted: February 2, 2011, 5:26 pm - IP Logged

                        You can't buy tickets out of sequence here. Also, in Indiana, store owners and employees are not allowed to purchase tickets from their place of employment. They have to go to another store.

                        Gonna win.Big Smile

                          Avatar

                          United States
                          Member #34931
                          March 9, 2006
                          68 Posts
                          Offline
                          Posted: February 2, 2011, 6:26 pm - IP Logged

                          Then there is the less complicated embezzlement strategy.

                            ttech10's avatar - blobdude
                            Texas
                            United States
                            Member #92332
                            June 5, 2010
                            781 Posts
                            Offline
                            Posted: February 2, 2011, 7:11 pm - IP Logged

                            I'll read the article later as it's rather long, but from the pictures it looks like you'd have to not only buy but also scratch off half the ticket in order to see if you've won or not... so how is this "cracking a code"? I could see it as that if it allowed you to figure out a ticket was a winner without having to scratch anything, but not when it's something like the pictures suggest.