The Numbers Game
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
NEW YORK Let's start with the good news: You are about to win $500.
No, it's not 100 percent certain, but frankly, it looks pretty darn good. All you need to do is drive to New York, buy a lottery ticket and play the number 686. Hello 500 smackeroos! It's basically a lock and you want to know why? Well, Roy Siano is glad you asked.
"Double sixes are our best bet for the next issue," he says.
That would be the next issue of 3 + 4 Digit Lotto Stats, one of two biweekly publications owned, edited and published by Siano and his business partner for the past five years, Stephen Allensworth. Each issue of Lotto Stats and its sister magazine, Lotto News, purport to do what any mathematician will tell you cannot be done: teach you how to win the lottery.
For $2.95 per issue, you get 32 black-and-white pages stuffed with reams of data, dozens of charts and erudite-sounding advice from a handful of columnists, each offering strategies to gamble your way to Fat City courtesy of the New York lottery. Plenty of these columns come off as -- what's the polite phrase here? -- utterly cockamamie. One is based on astrology, another on interpreting dreams. Readers in a recent issue who saw a door in their REM sleep, for instance, were advised to play 271. Why? Unclear.
But that's the more fanciful stuff. Siano and Allensworth claim that solid logic undergirds the "hit frequency charts" and "pattern tables" crammed into their magazines. It boils down to this: If you flip a coin nine times and it keeps coming up heads, what should you bet will happen in the next flip?
"Tails, of course," says Siano, who at the moment is sitting at the dining room table in Allensworth's apartment in Port Chester, a suburb of New York near the Connecticut border.
"We use gambler's math," says Allensworth, who is sitting on the other side of the table. "What it does is track events. Sometimes numbers are out for a long time," which is to say, they fail to show up in winning combinations. "Generally speaking, after they've been out for a while, they tend to make up lost ground."
Of course, the world is filled with geeks who find this "logic" laughable. Oh, they'll tell you that no matter how many tails in a row you get from a coin, the odds are still 50-50 with each new flip. The misimpression that a head is more likely after a string of tails, these so-called experts will tell you, even has a name. It's called the gambler's fallacy.
"It's also called the 'lottery fallacy,' " says Derrick Niederman, co-author of "What the Numbers Say: A Field Guide to Mastering Our Numerical World." "The law of averages isn't compelled to make adjustments on a near-term basis. What look like patterns are actually just the effect of randomness."
The lure of the gambler's fallacy, Niederman notes, has led more than a few people to ruin. In 2004, in lottery-crazed Italy, the number 53 failed to pop in a two-digit game for 152 consecutive draws. The whole country was slowly gripped by 53 fever. Four deaths were blamed on 53-related wagering, including a woman who drowned herself and left a note confessing she'd frittered away her family's money playing 53. A man was arrested for beating his wife out of 53-related frustration. When the number was finally drawn in February of 2005, one newspaper ran a headline that said "No. 53 Puts Italy Out of its Lottery Agony." Phooey, retorts Siano. "Could we have survived for all these years if the information we're providing these players isn't helping?"
He's got a point, though exactly how many players and how much help is anyone's guess. Neither he nor Allensworth will discuss circulation numbers, aside from saying it's in the thousands, and that both publications are available at more than 7,000 places around the state. In New York, player guides to the lottery have come and gone over the years, Siano says. The only newsstand competition these days comes from an assortment of 60-cent mimeographs with names like Big Blue Daily, but these are mere wisps compared with either of the Lotto mags.