Games of Chance

As somebody with a firm grip on science and statistics, I’ve always had a weird relationship with games of chance.  Generally speaking, I’ll calculate the odds and opt out, being the opposite of a gambling man — not only is there nothing I like better than an iron-clad guarantee, but I’ll view that as somewhat dubious until I see results.

In the fifth grade, I was once motivated to try my luck by a carnival drawing where one of the prizes was a big orange kangaroo that I found compelling, for some reason.  The idea was to pay a quarter, reach one’s hand into a Tupperware cereal-keeper full of tickets, then check to see if one’s numbers matched one of the prizes.  After a few questions and some quick math, I calculated my odds of winning anything to be about one in a hundred, and my odds of winning the kangaroo about 1 in 700.  Not wonderful odds, and I’d be stupid to pay a quarter for the privilege of reading a non-winning number from a ticket, but that kangaroo somehow managed to convince my addled fifth-grade mind that if I rummaged around in there, the ticket would magically find my hand because my desire was so great.

I suspect that a lot of fiction has this same side effect on impressionable young minds, even those straining to be rational.  Intellectually, I knew this was a ridiculous notion, but I wanted it to be true so badly, I almost had myself convinced.  It was just enough so that I handed my last quarter to the lady and rooted around in the Tupperware.

When I unfurled my ticket, a healthy dose of skepticism and anticipation kept me from getting too excited, and I checked the number three times before handing it to the lady — and collecting the kangaroo I had won.  It sat on my bed for years as a loved reminder of how every now and then, long odds do pay off, and it may be worthwhile to loosen up on cold rationality every now and then.

Years later, I got the idea that I would buy a lottery ticket.  The odds of winning are calculated for you (“virtually impossible!”) so I was under no illusions that I’d win anything.  As a test of my mental resolve, I was going to play all ones — which is difficult to imagine ever coming up, but has the exact same odds as winning (“virtually impossible!”) as any other number.  In this case, I justified it to myself because I wanted to see one of the automated lottery tickets at the grocery store in operation.

I put $1 into the machine, which promptly jammed, and went out of order.  What were the odds?  I promptly gave up on the lottery.

I’ll fast forward past counting cards in Atlantic City to being at the zoo with my four-year-old daughter whose attention has been captured by a claw machine with a bin full of tightly-packed stuffed animals.  “I want the tiger!” she says, pointing to a tiger behind the glass.

It seemed like a good time for a harsh lesson on probabilities, so I lectured her at great length about how unlikely it is that we’d win it on the first try, and that those games work because the amount of people money put in trying to grab a prize is always more than the cost of the prizes, and how I didn’t want her to be too disappointed when she didn’t win.  She solemnly took the 50 cents I handed her and promised she wouldn’t beg to play again if she didn’t get the tiger.

We still have that tiger.   I suspect my lecture was instantly forgotten.

Today I decided that I’ve give the lottery another chance, partly because if I don’t win, a significant chunk of the money goes to the schools, and partly just to see what it’s about these days.  While it’s not possible to play online, it’s possible to print out a PDF that allows one to buy tickets by mail, so I figured, what the heck:  if I don’t win, I’m not out much money, and if I do, hey, free money.

My rational mind was immediately assailed by a number of roadblocks, that weirdly reminded me of the jammed lottery machine decades earlier:

  • It took several tries to get the PDF to download.  The first time I got a PDF, it was blank
  • After filling out the form, but before I was able to print, my computer crashed (which never happens.)
  • My printer jammed
  • I was going to use a credit card to pay, but I used it earlier and misplaced it within the house
  • After deciding to just write a check, my pen flakes out, ruining a check.  It takes me 20 minutes to clean and fix my pen.
  • My printer jams when printing the envelopes, which it never does — not just once, but four times, ruining a swath of envelopes and causing me to have to apply for postal refunds

Coincidence?  Gentle fate trying to save me from wasting my money, or cruel fate trying to keep me from winning millions?

I’ll let you know, assuming this letter ever makes it.