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Skip Powerball And Play This Instead, Expert Says

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With the Powerball jackpot hovering at well over $1 billion, it seems like any “investment” you could afford would be worth the chance at the big prize. But one lottery expert says that unless you’re a professional player—who can spend five or six figures at a time per game, or who is part of a big-money team pool—you should skip Powerball and concentrate your efforts on smaller games.

A man purchases a Powerball lottery ticket at a convenience store in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO / . [+] SAUL LOEB

“Aside from high-odds lucky jackpot wins, the real money is made in the trenches of the pick-3, pick-4 and pick-5 games. This is where you will find the successful pro players firmly embedded with their charts, graphs, wheels and proven winning systems,” says the aptly named Steve Player, a lottery expert who has won two major jackpots, New York Pick-6 Lotto and Florida Fantasy Five. He’s won lotteries in 27 states and holds records for the highest single day payouts on pick-3 and pick-4 numbers, he says. He “predicts” winning numbers for his subscriber base of half a million people and recommends a system of regular betting.

Gallery: 10 Steps To Take When You Win A Lottery Jackpot

Most probability professionals will agree that you can’t game a fair system. They scoff at any kind of scheme that promises better odds of winning a fair game with a random drawing, as each number has its own equal chance of being drawn each time.

“Financially, it most definitely does not make sense to play the lottery. The vast majority of lottery players lose money,” says University of Southern California mathematics professor Kenneth Alexander, who specializes in probability and something called “subadditive Euclidean functionals.” He dismisses anyone who makes money selling winning advice or number-selection tricks as a charlatan. “The people making money off the lottery are mostly those who want to sell you useless schemes to try to win. If there were financially sound ways to beat the lottery, hedge funds and the rest of Wall Street would have been all over it long ago. People who play it should look at it as entertainment, coming out of the part of their budget that covers movies and ice cream cones. If the feeling that you hypothetically could win is worth $2 to you, then buy a ticket, but just know that that feeling is almost certainly the only thing you’ll get for your money.”

Why you should stay away from Powerball

Alexander points out that each possible Powerball entry has odds of 1 in 292 million, in every drawing. “The only thing you can change is reducing your chances of having to share the jackpot, if you hypothetically do win. You do that by picking unpopular numbers–typically those more than 31 since they are no one’s birthday,” he says.

Player calls Powerball, and its high-caliber cousins, Mega Millions and pick-5 hybrid games, “the crown jewels of the lottery game kingdom” that should only be pursued by serious players “who have amassed considerable wagering budgets from other games that they have learned to win consistently.”

To win the big games, a player must correctly choose five numbers from a field of between 30 and 75 numbers, and then pick the right number, in addition, from a separate field of between six and 35 numbers. “I call this the ‘double whammy’ of all lottery games,” he says. “With several jackpots already posted in excess of $500 million, these games are the worst places you could ever choose to donate your wagering dollars. These games are cash cows for the lottery, designed to produce large jackpots that they can advertise in order to sell more tickets.”

Alexander says: “My favorite description of Powerball odds is that if you’d been buying 1,800 tickets per week since the time of Jesus, there’s a better-than-even chance you wouldn’t have won the jackpot yet.”

What just might work

Again, there are no absolute strategies to winning lotteries—but both Player and Alexander have ideas on how to get an edge.

Player’s progressive-play method for amateurs goes like this:

  1. Start at your state’s pick-3 game and play “boxed” bets, which allow you to match winning numbers in any order. Then try the same in pick-4 games.
  2. When you’ve started winning, reinvest that money into “straight” wagers in the pick-3 and pick-4 games, in which you must match winning numbers in the order they were drawn.
  3. When you’ve begun winning the pick-3 and pick-4 games, move on to pick-5 or pick-6.
  4. Only when you have a lot of money amassed that you’re willing to lose, head on to the major jackpot games, such as Powerball.

“Here is the bottom line which I have derived from over 35 years of playing and winning the lottery,” Player says, “the more you learn about the games and all of the patterns and trends that affect the numbers which are drawn, the better you will get at winning …Once you take the time to learn the proper methods, this is a place full of smiling faces; players reveling in the joy of the challenge and the sweet smell of victory. These are the players who look at the lottery as a potential ATM machine that keeps changing its PIN number. It is our job to figure out what that PIN number will be today, because this ATM machine never runs out of cash.”

Alexander notes that the ways people have successfully figured out how to win—besides outright fraud and cheating—is by detecting patterns in when and where winning scratch-off tickets are distributed. He also mentioned a way that well-trained mathematicians who belonged to a lottery ring figured out how to game a lottery called Cash WinFall in Massachusetts by timing their ticket-buying to take advantage of a loophole that allowed more winners to take lower amounts every three months.

“But this does not apply to Powerball, because there’s no relevant information in advance of the drawing,” Alexander said, adding, “it doesn’t matter what game you play–pick 3, pick 4, Powerball, etcetera–and it doesn’t matter what strategy you use, you are extremely likely to lose money in the long run.”

Don’t throw money away on Powerball tickets. The smaller games deliver better results for amateur players.

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