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Are Computerized Lottery Drawings Truly Random?

Insider BuzzInsider Buzz: Are Computerized Lottery Drawings Truly Random?

When the Powerball jackpot passes the point where greed justifies stupidity -- and, at $50 million, Saturday's drawing probably qualifies -- I've been known to hand the convenience-store clerk a $5 bill in exchange for a small slip of paper bearing five series of computer-selected numbers.

Anything won that way, of course, would be the product of dumb luck. So when I don't win millions -- and I never have, or I wouldn't have to write this column -- I don't feel cheated. I've always been more dumb than lucky.

But there are people for whom playing the lottery is an exercise in mathematics and law of probabilities. To them, the rewards transcend money, and winning is the result of good planning, not just good fortune.

And some of those people said they no longer play the Hoosier Lottery because they suspect "randomly selected" winning numbers aren't truly random. Their complaint has gotten the attention of State Rep. Robert Alderman, R-Fort Wayne, who will investigate the concerns and try to change the lottery's number-selection process.

"For me, it was not about the money. It was about beating the game," said Jim Grimes of Kimmel, in Noble County.

Grimes, a retired engineer who began playing lotteries while in the Navy, meticulously records numbers the lottery selects. Grimes has used those charts to predict which numbers are more or less likely to win -- if the selection process is truly random. His system worked well, Grimes said -- he once he won nearly $12,000 in three weeks playing daily games -- until the lottery started using numbers generated by computers instead of pingpong balls drawn by a machine.

Afterward, Grimes said, his charts showed some numbers were selected more or less often than before -- and a system that had consistently produced wins yielded mostly losses. And since the laws of mathematics and probabilities have not changed, he reasoned, the lottery's numbers must have. In that case, any winning number selected -- even using a system such as Grimes' -- would be a matter of pure luck. And that's a game he and others like him refuse to play.

Hoosier Lottery officials said the change from pingpong balls to computers was made for two reasons: reliability and cost.

"We had used 15 (pingpong ball) machines since 1989, and they were showing wear and tear," lottery spokesman Andrew Reed said. "They would have cost at least $40,000 each to replace. Two portable computers cost about $700 each."

And Lottery Director Jack Ross said computers are not only more reliable but also produce numbers that are even more random, since even slight differences in the weight of pingpong balls -- caused by wear, paint or other factors -- could affect the numbers chosen. The lottery's selection process is closely monitored by impartial auditors, Ross and Reed said.

Grimes' fear: If the lottery's computers can track and even limit the numbers played by the public -- and they do -- those computers also can control the winning numbers selected by the lottery.

But that's a connection that simply doesn't exist, Ross said.

Even though lottery tickets state the "Hoosier Lottery reserves the right to limit the selection of certain numbers," it does so to limit the lottery's liability in a particular drawing, Ross said. If too many people play the same number, and that number is chosen by the lottery, the lottery could have to pay out far more than it takes in. To be able to do that, of course -- and to know where winning tickets are sold -- the lottery's computers must keep track of the numbers played by the public.

"It's a business decision, but I can't tell you off the top of my head what the limit is," he said.

But what if the lottery computers that issue numbers to the public are somehow talking to the computers that select the winning numbers? Could the lottery use that to control its payout by selecting numbers no one had picked?

Despite Grimes' suspicions, Ross said it's not happening -- and can't.

"Our reputation and integrity are on the line. Our charge from the state is to raise as much revenue as we can, but the best way to do that is by increasing payouts, not limiting them," Ross said.

In other words, people won't keep buying tickets to play a game they don't believe they can win. But, of course, that's Grimes' very point. Nor is he the only person making it.

Jeff Hert of Greenfield, Ind., has been playing the Hoosier Lottery for six years, picking numbers using a statistical database he found on the Internet. Like Grimes, Hert said he had some luck playing the daily games -- until the computers replaced the pingpong balls.

Since then, Hert said, he's probably lost $50,000. "I played so much it killed me. I don't think I'm addicted (to gambling); I just kept playing because I thought the law of averages would come around."

Hert doesn't play the Hoosier Lottery much anymore, but after meeting Grimes in an online lottery chat room and talking in person, he's convinced Grimes' concerns deserve investigation.

Todd Northrop, who operates a lottery Web site -- www.lotterypost.com -- said he is concerned by the growing use of computer-generated lottery numbers, "as there is no truly random computer. The relatively small savings obtained from computerized drawings is not worth the loss of player confidence it causes."

Just this week, in fact, Northrop's Web site posted a story from Pennsylvania, where "4-7-4" has won four times -- twice each on midday and evening drawings -- since May 17. The odds of that happening are about 3.3 million-to-one.

The Pennsylvania Lottery's midday drawing -- you guessed it -- uses a computer to select the winning numbers.

On the other hand, the evening drawing uses pingpong balls.

So what does all of this mean, if anything?

I'm not sure. Neither does Alderman. But he wants to find out.

"Any system where you don't see the numbers selected raises questions," Alderman said, referring to the fact the selection of lottery numbers is no longer televised, as it was in the pingpong ball era.

Ross, however, said that decision was made mostly by broadcasters, not the lottery. And people can witness the drawing if they request it.

Alderman also wants to study whether the computer-generated numbers are truly random, and whether the lottery is purposefully limiting payouts to compensate for the state government's billion-dollar deficit. Since the Hoosier Lottery began in 1989, it has sent about $2.5 million to the state. Out of about $8.5 million in sales, about $4.8 million in prizes have been paid. A payoff rate of about 50 percent is about average, Ross said, but that can rise or fall slightly according to, well, chance.

Still, to restore the faith of lottery agnostics like Grimes, Alderman's going to propose the Hoosier Lottery go back to picking its numbers the old-fashioned way: with pingpong balls. That's the method still used by the multi-state Powerball lottery.

"We would argue against that," Ross said.

"I don't care," Alderman said. "They work for (the Legislature)."

Reporter Kevin Leininger writes a column every other Saturday. Leininger has been with The News-Sentinel 24 years, 11 as an editorial writer. The column reflects his opinion, not necessarily that of The News-Sentinel, and will discuss issues affecting Fort Wayne. To pass along column ideas or feedback, contact him at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call 461-8355.

Kevin Leininger, The News-Sentinel

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25 comments. Last comment 11 years ago by hypersoniq.
Page 1 of 2
vincejr's avatar - wallace
Somewhere in VA
United States
Member #1944
July 29, 2003
130 Posts
Posted: June 21, 2004, 7:46 am - IP Logged

While it is true that using the balls isn't truly "equally" random due to wear and tear on the balls, etc, like a computer's random number generator, ball machines don't get computer viruses and/or can't have their programming tampered with like a $700 portable computer.

I'm all for openness and transparency....bring back the balls.

    Columbia City, Indiana
    United States
    Member #2978
    December 9, 2003
    381 Posts
    Posted: June 21, 2004, 11:25 am - IP Logged

    In addition to the quote by Todd, this story features two LotteryPost members: Losingjeff and Jim695.

    We worked with Mr. Leininger for a year to bring this story to press. Some things not mentioned in the article:

    The Hoosier Lottery downloaded their "Computerized Electronic Random Number Generator" from the internet, according to Joe Pfister, their CPA. They don't see anything wrong with this. The same disk was used to upload the code to two PC's, which serve as our official draw machines.

    One of those machines is housed at the location of one of their vendors, Scientific Games. They claim no conflict of interest exists, despite Indiana law, which prohibits vendors from also acting as contractors (security or otherwise).

    Lottery officials told LosingJeff and me they switched to the RNG in 2000 to save money, but their annual report shows that they lost $100 million in revenue during the first year of its operation. Since then, sales haven't reached pre-2000 levels. 

    They claim the reason payouts are so low here is that too many poor people live in Indiana. States like Rhode Island, Virginia and South Carolina, whose daily game payouts are roughly ten times more than Indiana's, have "a more affluent population, and more border states."  Trouble is, all of those states abut the Atlantic Ocean, so unless SpongeBob and his friends have suddenly started buying lottery tickets, neither of these arguments hold up, since the daily numbers have historically been a poor man's game.

    Our own Lottery Director, John Ross, "...can't tell you what the limits are," because none exist. Joe Pfister told us that the limit is one million dollars for the daily games, but we know that's not true. Indiana's liability limit is, apparently, $270,000.00. We know this to be true because Marti Walker, a friend of mine, went to buy her midday Daily-3 triples on July first of last year. When the attendant ran her bet slips through the terminal, it printed all her tickets except "333." Marti filled out a seperate bet slip and tried again. The terminal displayed a message saying, "Selection Refused."  No matter what she tried, she couldn't buy a ticket for that number.  That night, the Hoosier Lottery posted 540 straight winners for the midday number, "333," for a total payout of $270,000.00. For the record, Rhode Island's published liability limit is $3.5 million (Rhode Island has a population of one million people; Indiana has 6.1 million).  

    They stopped televising the live drawing as soon as they installed the RNG. Indiana law requires a live drawing for all online games, but lottery officials claimed to have no knowledge of that law. So I showed it to them. They claim that if they air a videotape of the drawing 42 minutes after it takes place, they're satisfying the requirements of a public drawing. But the law doesn't say that the drawing must be "made public," or that the drawing must be "publicized;" it says, "...if the game involves a drawing, that drawing must be public." I phoned them and asked to witness a drawing. I was told it was "impossible. The set is closed to the public." When Mr. Leininger called with the same request, they immediately granted their permission, but with a proviso: "Give us a week's notice before you come down." 

    LosingJeff and I met at Hoosier Lottery headquarters in Indianapolis on May 27. I was armed with Indiana's Access to Public Records Act, the state equivalent of the federal Freedom of Information Act. While there, Jeff and I were told that we had to make our requests for information in writing to Janna Shisler, their general legal counsel. The following day, I sent a certified letter requesting information regarding their daily games sales data, and for a list of names and cities of the person or persons who wins the Daily-4 straight combo on almost a daily basis. She emailed the sales information a few days later, but said that if I wanted the list of names, I would have to make an appointment and request it in person. It takes me three hours to drive to Indianapolis but, if I were to make the drive again, I'm sure I would be told to go home and write a letter.

    My contention is, and always has been, that the Hoosier Lottery games are currently rigged against the players. I believe I've collected enough evidence over the past year that I could prove this in a court of law, but try to get an attorney to take a case like this one. This being an election year, I think our best bet is to involve as many politicians as possible, and let them be the heroes.

    Many other states currently use, or have plans to institute, these random number generators. If you live in such a state, I would suggest you begin looking into the inner workings of your state lottery, especially if you are noticing sigificantly lower payouts. Of all the members here, only Pick-4_Master took me seriously when I first started making noise about this situation. Most other responses to my posts hinted that I was paranoid, or didn't know how to select my numbers, or that I had a negative attitude. I hope that, should you find corruption in your state lottery, your complaints will meet with more open support than mine did here. 

    Come, Pinky; we must prepare for tomorrow night...



      United States
      Member #972
      December 30, 2002
      463 Posts
      Posted: June 21, 2004, 11:51 am - IP Logged

      Wow, great information.  I had never heard of a number selection being refused - that would be enough to stop me from ever playing that game again. This stuff strikes me as being similar to the slimy underhanded computerized voting machines and manipulations, also designed to give the appearance or fairness and impartiality - your story is like a lottery version of the book "Votescam".

      >The following day, I sent a certified letter requesting information regarding their daily games sales data, and for a list of names and cities of the person or persons who wins the Daily-4 straight combo on almost a daily basis.

      Just curious, because I wasn't able to find a previous reference to this - do you believe there is such a person, or are you trying to find out if there is? If there is such a person, any theories on how he/she/they do it? 

      Look forward to reading any new postings on this. Thanks for all your work.

        Bradly_60's avatar - disney37
        Atlantic Mine, Michigan
        United States
        Member #416
        June 23, 2002
        1614 Posts
        Posted: June 21, 2004, 12:12 pm - IP Logged

        Why do some states do that?  They are always ahead one way or another.  Who cares it the the players win a couple times out of the year.  Take Michigan for instance.  I don't know any limit on the daily games.  On tax day April 15 the number 1010 came up in the daily 4 and it paid out well over $13,000,000.......2600% of the drawings sales.  If a state puts a cap on they are making sure the players shouldn't be able to win ever.  I like our states lottery.



          United States
          Member #1610
          June 3, 2003
          668 Posts
          Posted: June 21, 2004, 2:51 pm - IP Logged

          Keep using the numbered lotto balls and the mechanical drawing machines no matter what the replacement cost may be ...why change a good thing?!

          ... the lottery never fails to surprise!

            United States
            Member #2873
            November 25, 2003
            1132 Posts
            Posted: June 21, 2004, 3:21 pm - IP Logged

            this certainly is an interesting story and Jim's additional comments are very intriguing.

            Even as designer of lottery systems and particularly PICK 3 I never saw the use of computers as a concern. I guess I have to adjust that position after reading this.

            Indirectly though Jim's comments show me some truth in my concern about quick picks that I had from the beginning. A way to reduce a potentially high pay-out is to even out the numbers selected on quick pick tickets, which is very easy to do with an on-line system, and apparently is done when some numbers are even rejected after reaching a particular number of betters.  That seems unfair because it works against the odds of winning for the player community as a whole, and gives the lottery an unreasonable advantage in addition to the 50% pay-out.

            Very interesting topic. Thanks for the story and thanks particularly to Jim for the additions.

            Good Luck!

              Saleo Paleo's avatar - Trek DS9worm3.gif
              United States
              Member #3493
              January 25, 2004
              6348 Posts
              Posted: June 21, 2004, 4:40 pm - IP Logged

              Keep the ping pong ball method it cannot be controled like the computer method  can,I believe the states are making a large profit with the ping pong system, Do they want to lose players, I do not play in any State that uses the computer system, I do not play in my home state of Tn because of that,  

              Saleo Paleo    

                vincejr's avatar - wallace
                Somewhere in VA
                United States
                Member #1944
                July 29, 2003
                130 Posts
                Posted: June 21, 2004, 4:48 pm - IP Logged

                Personally, I don't have a problem with "limitations" on the amount of plays a single number can have--i.e. "liability limits" as the state lotteries are businesses, and these businesses often have a dedicated goal of returning all profits to "xxx" program at the state level. However, I do believe that these "liability limits" must be publicized to avoid confusion and to keep transparency involved.

                Virginia has liability limits for all of its daily games--Pick 3, Pick 4, and Cash 5. However, these liability limits are explained in plain English on the VA Lottery's web site, rules, and in the case of Cash 5, on the back of the playslip itself. Here is how the website reads for each:

                Pick 3:

                Popular numbers such as triples (333,444) occasionally sell out. Buying Pick 3 numbers is similar to buying tickets to a ball game or a concert: There is a limited amount of each number available and numbers can sell out. If you buy your tickets early in the day, or in advance, you most likely will not have a problem getting the number you want.

                A Pick 3 number is sold out if 16,000 Exact Order tickets are bought for that number for that drawing.

                Pick 4:

                Popular numbers such as quadruples (5555, 7777) occasionally sell out. Buying Pick 4 numbers is similar to buying tickets to a ball game or a concert: There is a limited amount of each number available and numbers can sell out. If you buy your tickets early in the day, or in advance, you most likely will not have a problem getting the number you want.

                A Pick 4 number is sold out if 1,200 Exact Order tickets are bought for that number for that drawing. To be fiscally responsible, and to avoid jeopardizing the important programs that Lottery revenues fund, the Virginia Lottery is obligated to set certain liability limits. If a sold-out number is drawn, the Lottery would pay $6 million for a sold-out Pick 4 number. A sold-out number has the same chance of being the winning number in a drawing as any other number.

                Cash 5:

                If you wager $1 and your five numbers match the numbers drawn, you win $100,000. (If the total top-prize payouts for all wagers that match 5 of 5 exceed $2 million for a single drawing, all winners who match 5 of 5 for that drawing will share $2 million, in proportion to the amount they wagered.)

                So, to make it short and sweet--there is nothing inherently evil about liability limits, however, to be fair to the player, they need to be publicized and "put out there" for all to see prior to attempting to play numbers.

                  United States
                  Member #1610
                  June 3, 2003
                  668 Posts
                  Posted: June 21, 2004, 4:57 pm - IP Logged

                  all this time while purchasing quick-pick lottery tickets...i was under the distinct impression that each lottery ticket terminal had it's own random number generator and after issuing the tickets simply reported those numbers back to the lottery computers. i understand how the numbers during the subsequent drawing (if done by a computer) could then be manipulated ...but i never in my wildest dreams had any incling that the quick-picks being issued (in any game) might be pre-determined based on quotas. my question is ...what determines the actual quick-pick number set being purchased? a (totally random) number generator in the ticket terminal at the counter or a number generator at the central computer? if there is any 'quota' communication to the counter terminal 'pre-ticket purchase' determining what quick-pick numbers will or will not be issued - the lottery is then rigged! (for lack of a better term). as far as i'm concerned if players even sense that a game isn't as random as possible during both the issue of q-p ticket numbers or during the actual draw, it means the beginning of the end of that lottery game. trying to save or raise money by going the cheap route with computerized draws, or by (heaven forbid) pre or post number manipulation in any form, the lottery will lose everything in the end. the game involved will die a quick death. whether you choose your own numbers or play quick-picks, if you lean towards the lottery games that faithfully rely on mechanical drawing machines - you'll never have a problem.

                  ... the lottery never fails to surprise!
                    Todd's avatar - Cylon 2.gif
                    Chief Bottle Washer
                    New Jersey
                    United States
                    Member #1
                    May 31, 2000
                    22366 Posts
                    Posted: June 21, 2004, 6:00 pm - IP Logged

                    golotto: the random numbers (Quick Pick) are generated by the individual lottery terminal.  They are then reported back to the central computer.  I'm sure if they reported back a combination that already sold out it would then select a different combination (again, generated at the lottery terminal).


                    Check the State Lottery Report Card
                    What grade did your lottery earn?


                    Sign the Petition for True Lottery Drawings
                    Help eliminate computerized drawings!

                      liberal47's avatar - Rowlf
                      Holt MI
                      United States
                      Member #2244
                      September 4, 2003
                      69 Posts
                      Posted: June 21, 2004, 6:59 pm - IP Logged

                      It all sort of reminds me of going to a casino to play blackjack and discovering a continuous shuffler machine, with the cards being collected and reinserted into the shuffler after every hand. Most people would like to have the expectation of being able to, count a few cards, and maybe being able to guess how many face cards are left in the deck. Sure it may just be perception, but when I'm putting my money down, I'd be more likely to play when I can feel I have a hand in the outcome..

                       Most lottery players would like to think they at least have a chance against the odds. This move by Indiana is not only shortsighted, it is just plain bad business............... for the players.

                        United States
                        Member #1610
                        June 3, 2003
                        668 Posts
                        Posted: June 21, 2004, 7:21 pm - IP Logged

                        thanks Todd for the info concerning rngs

                        ... the lottery never fails to surprise!
                          RJOh's avatar - chipmunk
                          United States
                          Member #9
                          March 24, 2001
                          19304 Posts
                          Posted: June 21, 2004, 8:26 pm - IP Logged

                          From jim695's post:

                          They(Indiana lottery commission) claim the reason payouts are so low here is that too many poor people live in Indiana. States like Rhode Island, Virginia and South Carolina, whose daily game payouts are roughly ten times more than Indiana's, have "a more affluent population, and more border states."

                          I would think that the percentage of payout would be the same regardless of who's playing.  Since when has a poor man's dollar had less value than an affluent man's dollar? They both will buy the same amount at Wal-Mart. Sounds like someone should be accountable to the public or get another job.


                          * believe and keep playing *
                          * you don't need to buy more tickets, just buy a winning ticket * 
                          * your best chance for winning a lottery jackpot is to buy a ticket * 
                                  Evil Looking       

                            United States
                            Member #2873
                            November 25, 2003
                            1132 Posts
                            Posted: June 21, 2004, 8:51 pm - IP Logged


                            Thanks for the input.

                            I assumed that originally too, but I could not find any specs on Lottery terminals from GTECH and other companies. Do you have any sources?

                            Good Luck!