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Can you improve odds to win Mega Millions?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A lot of money is up for grabs - $355 million to be exact. The near record setting Mega Millions lottery drawing is Tuesday night.

The odds of winning are about 1 in 176 million. But we wanted to know - is there anything you can do to improve those odds?

There are two kinds of lotto players: quick pickers and those who use birthdays, anniversaries and maybe some other numbers they have researched. So we decided to ask an expert to see if those special numbers and research are worth it or not.

The second largest Mega Millions jackpot ever has even some of the most conservative throwing down their hard-earned cash.

"If you don't tell my wife, I bought two more than I usually do," said Keith Hoppe.

And it also has some using special numbers they bubbled in, hoping to gain an edge. Others leave it to fate.

"I took all quick picks, but my wife picked her numbers," said Bob Conner.

So when his wife gave him a list of numbers on a scratch sheet of paper, does she know something he doesn't? Maybe a certain strategy?

"I don't know where she got those numbers. Probably from the back of a fortune cookie slip or something like that," Conner said.

So much for that. But it also falls in line with the expert advice we received from a Rice University statistician. Kathy Ensor says since all the lottery numbers are picked at random, every number has the same chance and actually your special numbers aren't so special.

"As a population, we like birthdays or seven and 11 or we feel like some numbers are lucky and so if we win we're more likely to share that pot with someone else that thought those numbers were lucky," said Ensor, Chair of the Department of Statistics at Rice U.

Another myth: When so many people play a big lottery do your chances get diluted? Not at all, because you're playing against a set of numbers, not other people.

"Those numbers remain fixed and so it doesn't matter who is playing or how many people have bought tickets," said Ensor.

But somebody has got to win right? So why not keep dreaming.

"Pay off my debts and give a big chunck to the church," said Rosemary Dalrymple.

"Take care of my family, number one," said Carlos Montano.

The winner of the Mega Millions jackpot can accept it two ways: as $224 million lump sum, or as 26 annual payments before taxes. Uncle Sam and state and local governments all get their piece.

What happens if you do win? What do you do next? We talked with a financial planner last week about what to do.

"The first step is to secure the ticket. The ticket is your entry into the lottery winnings. You want to make sure that it's safe. You want to make sure it doesn't get damaged. And that's where discretion comes in," said Joe Birkofer, a certified financial planner.

Birkofer, who advised a $40 million lottery winner, says if you win, don't tell anyone and change your phone number.

Most winners go for the cash option, but Birkofer suggests opting for the annual payments instead of the lump sum, saying most people are just not prepared to handle such a large amount of cash.

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