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You’re more likely to become president (25 times more likely, that is), than win Powerball, but someone will win, says UB biostatistician

Release Date: January 8, 2016

“In the infinite number of events that happen in the world every day, something rare happens a lot. Unbelievably rare things happen every single day. With that in mind, winning this Powerball is essentially impossible, yet someone will win it.”
Jeffrey Miecznikowski, associate professor of biostatistics
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The stakes are high. Really, really high. And the odds are low. Really, really low. But someone is going to win Powerball, according to Jeffrey Miecznikowski, associate professor of biostatistics at the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.

“It’s essentially impossible to win this and someone will say, well, Joe Smith of Florida won it, so it wasn’t impossible,” says Miecznikowski. “That’s because of the improbability principle, which means that in the infinite number of events that happen in the world every day, something rare happens a lot. Unbelievably rare things happen every single day.

“With that in mind, winning this Powerball is essentially impossible, yet someone will win it.”

The record-breaking $800 million Powerball jackpot drawing will take place Saturday night. Ticket holders have a 1 in 292.2 million chance of winning, notes Miecznikowski. Here’s a look at some of the statistics:

The odds

You’re 25 times more likely to become the next president of the United States, assuming the entire U.S. population had an equal shot at the presidency, than you are to win Powerball, says Miecznikowski.

The odds of winning are equivalent to flipping a coin 28 times and getting heads every single time.

“I know that doesn’t sound so bad,” he says. “I can do 28 coin tosses in five minutes. But you would be at it for an eternity.”

If all the teams in the NFL were equally likely to make the Super Bowl, the equivalent of winning Powerball would be making seven Super Bowls in a row. Roughly, actually winning six Super Bowls in a row would be slightly rarer than winning Powerball, says Miecznikowski.

Miecznikowski does offer some hope for Powerball players – March Madness.

Assuming every team is equally likely to win, or each game is a coin flip, he says, the odds of picking a perfect bracket is much rarer than winning Powerball. In fact, he says, you are 32 billion times more likely to win Powerball than to pick a perfect bracket.

His advice?

Pick numbers like one, or 11, or 111, he says.

While the machines that pull the ping pong balls out are air-filled drums and are as close to random as we have, he says, the numbers on the balls are in black ink and add weight.

“Take all the numbers that don’t have as much black paint on them because they may be lighter and float to the top,” Miecznikowski says.

That is his only advice. But, he warns, that is probably inconsequential and there is really no strategy. The numbers that come up one day are just as likely to come up the next, he says.

But on the bright side, he says, someone is going to win.

“I’m surprised no one has won yet because of the amount of ticket sales,” he says. “Someone will win something unbelievably rare.”

To find UB faculty experts on other topics – including issues trending in the news – visit UB’s Faculty Experts website.

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