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What are the odds this is a bad bet?

At what point should we worry that the Florida Lottery has gone too far in getting folks to part with their money?

I admit, right off the bat, that the answer to that question might be "never."

Maybe our state should just fleece folks for as much as they are willing to lose.

That seems to be the tenor of the times. Even our governor these days is counting on expanding gambling to balance the state budget.

Our thinking seems to be that if there are a lot of gamblers, the rest of us won't have to pay as much in taxes. It's "free money."

Their loss, our gain.

And yet, let's raise the question anyway.

The Florida Lottery has added a new angle to its Lotto game, which is a sucker bet in the first place.

"Add millions to your jackpot!" the ads say. "The choice is yours!"

Here's how it works:

If you bet $2 instead of $1, and you win, you get an extra $10-million.

If you bet $3 instead of $1, and you win, you get an extra $25-million.

The Lotto now advertises three jackpots at a time. Even with the smallest jackpot of $3-million, it's still possible to win $13-million or $28-million — as long as you fork over the extra dollar or two.

Make no mistake: In terms of this being any kind of intelligent gambling proposition, it is an idiotic bet to make.

My colleague Scott Long, co-host of our Ante Up! poker blog, astutely pointed out a key fact in a recent column: Spending the additional money does not increase your odds of winning.

The chance of winning on a $1 bet are 23-million to 1. But so are the odds of winning a $2 bet. So are the odds of winning a $3 bet.

"Give us more of your money," the lottery folks are saying in translation, "but your odds aren't any better."

Maybe you are thinking: "Yeah, but it's still worth it because if I do win, I win a lot more!"

Yet in some cases it's even less worth it.

Remember, your odds of winning on a $1 ticket are 23-million to 1 — a "fair" payoff would be $23-million.

Now the state wants you to double your wager — for "only" an additional $10-million, or to triple it, for "only" an additional $25-million. At no greater chance of winning.

As Long points out, the "smarter" play would be simply to buy more Lotto numbers, to cover more possible combinations.

Of course, maybe such an analysis is beside the point. Maybe it's crazy to talk about odds of 1 in 10-million, or even 1 in 1-million, as somehow being a "better" bet.

In the end, as lottery enthusiasts like to say, this is really just "for entertainment."

Yet somehow, I do not think that everybody lining up at convenience stories and supermarkets across the state, clutching their lottery numbers, are doing it purely "for entertainment." For some, it even seems to be an investment or retirement strategy.

So to increase their "entertainment," the state has figured out how to separate them from double or triple the money, at no better odds of winning.

Why not, then, try to sell them $5 tickets, or $10, or $20, at the same odds? Why not a program to get people to sign over their mortgages and car titles? Why not see just how far we can get them to go?

After all — their loss, our gain.

What are the odds this is a bad bet? 03/08/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 8, 2008 5:38pm]
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