Beanery Online Literary Magazine

December 29, 2007


Filed under: WR/V GEOFFREY — beanerywriters @ 4:13 am
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—by geoffrey m. miller © 2000 Miller Creative Services. All rights reserved mcsot0187 (Used with permission)

Standing in line gives me time to think. Today, I was thinking about probability– specifically, the probability that my quart of cherry-vanilla ice cream would melt before the lady in front of me finished her transaction.

She was ancient and oddly-dressed: flat, white sandals with purple socks, blue corduroy slacks, and a reddish floral print blouse under a dark green sweater. She wore a curly brown wig and held an unfiltered cigarette in her hand, which may explain why she croaked when she talked.

“Give me two bucks on ‘897’– straight and boxed”, she told the proprietor, “…and two bucks on ‘213’ straight.”

There was a pause while she fumbled with the crumpled slip of paper on which her allegedly ‘lucky numbers’ had been scrawled. There were dozens of them and she had barely gotten started.

“O.K.,” she croaked, “all these are a dollar, straight: ‘113’, ‘797’, ‘012’, ‘555’,… “, and on and on to the sound of the man’s fingers tapping the keypad and the whir and click of the lottery machine spewing tickets.

I used to believe in Santa Claus. Then I learned math. After dividing the number of minutes on Christmas Eve by the number of chimneys in my time zone, I couldn’t believe in Santa anymore… and I couldn’t believe that I had ever been so gullible.

Something similar happened a few years ago when I started reading the fine print on the back of my weekly lotto ticket. After some quick calculations, I realized that Santa was three times more likely to traverse ten million chimneys– simultaneously– than I was to win the lottery. Math has that effect on fairy tales.

Meanwhile, back in the line, I was beginning to wonder what the odds were that I’d get out of this so-called ‘Quickee-Mart’ before nightfall.

After a ten minute recital, the woman had reached the end of her list of three-digit numbers and had returned it to her purse. She fumbled around in there just long enough for me to get my hopes up, before retrieving an equally-long list of ‘pick-six’ numbers and handing them across the counter.

Unlike the ‘one-chance-in-a-thousand’ three digit daily lottery game, these pick-six games were played twice a week and required players to match six winning numbers between zero and forty-eight. The prizes for these games started at one million dollars. The odds of winning were 1-in-10,937,894.

To put this huge number into perspective, consider this: If I were to wait in line behind this woman for 10,937,894 seconds, I would be standing there for just over four months and six days. Compare that with the odds involved in more traditional forms of gambling. Although they vary by casino, game and race, the odds of winning SOMETHING are about 1-in-80 for keno, 1-in-35 for roulette, 1-in-30 for blackjack, and 1-in-12 for playing the horses.

To reach the dizzying heights of unlikelihood that are involved in government lotteries, we’d have to forgo the realm of normal gambling and consider these extremely improbable events:
The odds of your house catching fire: 1-in-1000…
… of your car catching fire: 1-in-7,200…
… of having quintuplets: 1-in-10,000…
… of your dog catching fire: 1-in-80,000…
… of getting struck by lightning: 1-in-600,000, (twice: 1-in-1.4 million)…
… of finding scorpions in your boots: 1-in-2.9 million…
… of finding badgers in your boots: 1-in-3.5 million…
… of being killed by falling space debris: 1-in-3.8 million…
… that a certain detergent will really leave your dishes virtually spotless: 1-in-3.9 million…
… that George Washington really slept here: 1-in-4.2 million…
… of falling into the New York City Sewer System: 1-in-30,000; (and being eaten by alligators: 1-in-4.3 million)…
… that the guys who drew Fantasia were not experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs: 1-in-4.8 million…
… that the stain on the back seat is really just mustard: 1-in-5 million…
… that the teenage kid wearing the ‘No Fat Chicks’ T-shirt will have sex before he’s forty years old: 1-in-5.9 million…
… that Frederic Chopin doesn’t roll over in his grave every time a Junior High School orchestra tries to play the ‘Nocturne in E-flat’: 1-in-6 million…
… that your cat actually gives a rip about you: 1-in-6.2 million…
… of giving birth to a kangaroo, (if you aren’t one): 1-in-6.7 million…
… that a politician is telling you the truth: 1-in-7 million, (in an election year: 1-in-9.9 million)…
… that Grishnak, ruler of Planet Nebulon in Galaxy X-7 will pop by for tea and crumpets next Thursday afternoon: 1-in-10,937,893.
And once again, the odds of winning the pick-six lotto drawing: 1-in-10,937,894. Finally, the odds that a multi-million dollar lottery winner will end up bankrupt within two years: 1-in-12.

Judging by what the woman said next, I’d be willing to bet she had never given much thought to the odds.

“I have a good feeling about this one, Harry,” she assured the clerk. “I just know I’ll get that million someday.”

“Not before he does,” I thought as she handed him a wad of bills.

“Y’know what I’m gonna do with the money when I win?” she asked, turning to include me in the conversation. “I’m gonna go on a round-the-world cruise!”

“Do you suppose that’ll be before or after you get struck by lightning?” I asked, calmly.

If I had started to tell her about my alien abduction or said that I had weasels on my head, her reaction wouldn’t have been much different. She shut up and turned back around, hoping I wouldn’t say anything else.

I didn’t and that’s probably a good thing. If I had, I would have climbed upon my anti-lottery soap box and began pontificating like a reformed smoker in a cigar store. The speech she missed would have gone something like this:
“I don’t play the state lottery for three reasons. One– It’s a tax. Or, as the Italians like to say, ‘a tax on stupidity.’ Two– It’s sucker odds. No self-respecting casino boss would ever sink to running such a racket. Even slot machines at 300-to-one odds are respectable by comparison. And Third– It’s hypocrisy. The same people who operate government lotteries would be at my door with guns if I tried to do the same thing.”

To that, I could add a fourth reason I don’t play the state lottery: Some people get obsessed with them and cause all kinds of problems, like melting my ice cream.

When the woman finally left, I dropped my container onto the counter, where it made a muffled splash.

“Will there be anything else today, sir?” asked the man at the register. “Would you care to buy a lottery ticket?”

I glanced out the window to see if storm clouds were gathering over the woman’s apartment building– just in case.

“No thanks.” I said, “Not today.”


  1. I am a cashier for a convenience store that sells scratch off and lottery tickets. I feel so bad for the folks who have found themselves in line behind a lottery head. Usually it’s someone who is in a frantic hurry to get to work and the reason they stopped at our store is because they thought they could get in and out in a hurry.

    I believe they should have locations set up for only lottery purchases, so that food won’t get ruined and folks can get to work on time.

    Comment by Said Mother — January 8, 2008 @ 10:40 pm | Reply

  2. BLESS YOU, Said Mother! It sounds like you’re in a position to be an agent of positive change. 🙂 (I feel bad for the folks who can least afford to waste money wasting it on such long odds.)


    Comment by Geoff (author) — March 10, 2008 @ 11:16 pm | Reply

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