Long odds

People sure got excited about last week’s Powerball drawing.  I guess a chance at $1.6 billion’ll do that.

It got me thinking, though:  how much of a chance was that?

Gambling is, inherently, a losing proposition.  Casinos tend to be pretty opulent, so it seems most of the money that comes in their doors stays there.  Lotteries apparently make enough to fund themselves, pay out prizes, and “fund education,” so they must be making a profit, too.  The odds are simply (and significantly) against the player.

For Powerball, the odds of winning are 1 in 292,000,000, because of math.  The numbers on a Powerball ticket can be combined in 292,000,000 ways, but only one of those ways can win the jackpot.  That doesn’t sound so good, but let’s make it a little clearer.

The US population is currently 318,900,000, so it’s a pretty good start for an illustration.  Let’s leave out Alaska and Hawaii because they’re distant and Texas because it has about 27,000,000 people, so we wind up with a population of 289,743,268.  That’s about as close as we can get to the Powerball odds, and they’re actually a little bit better.

Now imagine that I took your car keys, mailed them to one of those nearly 290 million people living in the US but not Alaska, Hawaii or Texas, and then told you to go find them.  You could drive or fly to wherever you wanted to, walk up to just one person, and ask only that one person for your keys.  You could pick that person randomly, let someone else pick for you, or even count people off by your birthday, but you could only ask one person if he or she had your keys.

Do you think you’d get them back?

Let’s play again.  Imagine that I type one numeral “1” in a Word document and 291,999,999 lower-case “L”s.  This would take a good typist about two years, nine months and 10 days (assuming typing constantly for 24 hours a day with no breaks, meals, sleep, or vacations).  If it were typed single-spaced on standard office paper at 12-point font, it would fill 76,842 pages and stand over 25 feet tall.*  Again, you have one chance to turn to a page, plop down your finger, and find the numeral 1.  That’s about a 99.9999997 percent chance of failing and a 0.0000003 percent chance of succeeding.  Think you’d find it?

Now, people who understand probability know that adding more chances raises the probability of success, so some people buy more than one ticket.  Buy ten tickets for $20, and the chance of winning increases to 0.000003 percent.  A hundred tickets will cost $200 and increase the odds of winning to 0.00003 percent.  Surely a thousand tickets would make a difference:  spend $2,000 to get the odds up to 0.0003 percent (with a 99.9997 percent chance of losing).  Even if someone spent $2,000,000 for a million chances, they’d have only increased their chance of winning to 0.34 percent (that’s a third of a percent, not 34 percent, in case anyone misreads it); they’d still have a 99.66 percent chance of losing.

The probability changes, but in essence, it’s always “effectively zero.”  Buying more tickets doesn’t improve those odds meaningfully.

Sadly, I think the people running the lotteries might know this.

Why do people gamble then?  It seems pretty foolish and risky, with little chance of it turning out well.

I’m no better.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve gambled with my health.**  I’ve basically ignored the numbers, the probabilities of things turning out well for me and my family, and even plain logic.  The long odds haven’t dissuaded me from what I wanted to do.  Fortunately, I haven’t done the really risky things like crash diets or pills, but I haven’t made the other things work for me, either. I’ve just floated along, doing what I wanted, ignoring the odds, pretending a huge victory is just around the corner.

There’s an even worse gamble, though:  our eternity.  French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal described it famously as a “wager”: that since God either does or doesn’t exist, it is better to gamble that He does and seek Him than to gamble that He doesn’t and ignore Him, as the seeker loses nothing if wrong but the ignorer loses Heaven if wrong.

Many have criticized Pascal’s Wager, and rightly so.  It’s really advice, not evidence: it’s a description of odds and outcomes (and an incomplete one at that), not proof of a particular outcome.  Wanting God to exist can’t make Him exist any more than wanting Him not to can make Him vanish.  Yet Pascal’s Wager does remind us, perhaps, to take the question more seriously than we otherwise might, to examine the evidence and contemplate the odds.  To reach a conclusion and a decision.  To lay our cards on the table and commit.

Years ago, I threw my cards down with Pascal.  Not because of him, just along with him.  The Bible made (and continues to make) sense to me, partly because I agree that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1, NIV).  Partly because I have seen and heard and felt God’s work in my life and in the circumstances around me.  The evidence convinced me that the odds were highest that God does exist, that He revealed Himself through the Bible, that He came down to us as Jesus Christ, and that His death and resurrection saved us to eternal life.  I believe that He has continued to affirm and prove His existence, presence and love.

In a way, committing to God in actions and not just words is the only gamble the Bible promotes.  God tells the Israelites in Malachi 3:10 (NIV), “‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.  Test me in this,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it‘” (emphasis added).

Give God a shot.  Unlike playing Powerball, what do you have to lose?

* Playing with math is fun.

** Wondering what some of the odds are for me and my gamble, I stumbled onto a Reuters article about a study of nearly 200,000 Brits that said the odds of an obese person attaining a healthy weight were distressingly low:  “1 in 210 for men and 1 in 124 for women.  For those who were severely obese, the annual odds stretched to 1 in 1,290 for men and 1 in 677 for women.”  Long odds, but better than a lottery.  And much, much more important.

Pray for me to be that “1,” and please help hold me accountable.  This is too big a stake to lose.

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