Professor offers hints for winning Powerball

Image courtesy Michigan Lottery.
Image courtesy Michigan Lottery.

Saturday's Powerball jackpot will be the largest for any lottery game in American history after the $500 million drawing on January 6 yielded no winner.

According to Michigan Lottery, Saturday's jackpot is currently sitting at $800 million with the cash option of $428.4 million. That number topples the previous jackpot record, which was a $656 million Mega Millions jackpot won in March of 2012.

John Gabrosek, statistics professor at Grand Valley State University, said the odds of one person actually winning Saturday's grand prize if they purchase only one ticket is about 1 in 292,201,338. 

"The calculation to determine the chance of winning the lottery involves something called 'combinatorics,' which encompasses finding the number of chances something can happen and the number of ways a ticket can be a winner," Gabrosek said. "For example, after all the calculator magic, there are 11,238,513 different five-number possibilities for the white Powerball numbers."

Gabrosek explained that the odds of someone from Michigan, or even Grand Valley specifically, winning the Powerball ultimately depends on how many tickets are sold.

"It's been estimated that Michigan residents are expected to purchase more than 3 million tickets, so let's say 3.5 million tickets are sold," Gabrosek said. "The chance of a Michigan winner would be a paltry 1.2 percent. Let's say every one of the roughly 25,000 GVSU students buys 100 tickets, which would equal about 2,500,000 tickets. The chance of a GVSU winner would be only 0.86 percent."

So how can one help better their chances at winning? Gabrosek said the best strategy is to buy more tickets and play mid-range numbers.

"To increase the chances you won't have to split a winning ticket, play numbers in the 40s, 50s and 60s for the white balls," Gabrosek said. "People often play numbers that relate to meaningful things, such as ages and birthdays, especially of children and siblings. Since ages of children would tend to be smaller numbers and birthdays are never beyond a monthly end date of 31, people tend not to play high numbers."

Gabrosek said he believes that most people in the U.S. play lottery games because they think they have a higher chance of winning than they actually do.

"The lottery does a very good job of advertising the winners without talking much about the chances of winning or the many, many losers," Gabrosek said. "Everyone thinks they have a system to beat the odds, but they really don't. All that being said, I'll probably buy a ticket."

The most recent Powerball victory was in Tennessee on November 4, 2015, with a grand prize of $89,795,622.

The last Michigan resident to win the Powerball was Julie Leach, who took home $197,417,561 in September of last year.

Gabrosek said while $800 million is a staggering number, the winnings reaching that amount is a lot less surprising than most people think.

"The chance of no one winning on the last drawing was actually about 55 percent," Gabrosek said. "So, when you buy a ticket — or a bunch of tickets — there is a very, very small chance of winning the jackpot."

To gain some perspective, below is a list of what someone is more likely to experience than winning the Powerball jackpot:

  • Being struck by lightning - one in 960,000
  • Being called to "Come on down!" on "The Price is Right" - one in 36
  • Being audited by the IRS - one in 175
  • Being born with 11 fingers or toes - one in 500
  • Winning an Oscar - one in 11,500
  • Finding a pearl in an oyster - one in 12,000
  • Becoming a billionaire - one in 7 million
  • Becoming President of the U.S. - one in 10,000,000
  • Getting attacked by a shark - one in 11,500,000 


Sign up and receive the latest Grand Valley headlines delivered to your email inbox each morning.