Maryland's daily numbers game is designed to give back to its players no more than 50 percent of what they wager.

If a private entrepreneur ran a game in which he gave back only half of each day's wagering, people would say he had the equivalent of a license to steal. Yet in Maryland there have been periods during which even a 50 percent bite hasn't been enough to let the state break even. During one recent stretch, the state-run numbers game lost money on five days out of eight!

One must wonder whether the Maryland legislature repealed the law of averages while nobody was looking, or whether this is some new version of Maryland thievery.

The numbers game challenges players to guess which of 1,000 three-digit numbers (000 through 999) will win on any given day.The winning digits are supposed to be selected by pure chance. If something other than pure chance is brought to bear on the outcome, those who have inside knowledge can make a fortune.

After the state lost a ton of money when 777 won on Tuesday, Nov. 14, I reviewed the combinations that had won earlier in November. I found that they had occured in this order: 243, 075, 871, 862, 273, 511, 721, 241, 730, 303, 933, 777.

You will note that the digit 1 appeared five times, 2 was also seen five times, and 3 showed up seven times. The digits 4 and 5 occured only twice each, and 6 made it just once.

However, 7 turned up on six out of 12 days, and on one occasion three times in a single day, for a total of eight appearances. During the same two-week span, the digit 8 appeared twice, 9 only once, and the zero came up three times.

That was quite an imbalance. However, it covered only a 12-day period, and I wondered what, if anything, it indicated.

If I went back through the month of October, would I find a continuation of the same pattern or a new one? I had to find out.

When I finished the additional tally, I found that lucky 7 was still the most frequently seen digit in the Maryland numbers game - and by a wide enough margin to raise questions in my mind.

Oct. 1 fell on Sunday. From Oct. 2 through Saturday, Nov. 18, numbers players had 42 chances to win, and 126 digits were involved in these 42 three-digit numbers.

By pure chance, each of ten digits would occur 12.6 times during 126 total occurrences. However, the digit 7 actually came out 21 times. Zero and 1 hit on 15 occasions each, and 3 was close behind with 14.

The digit 6 appeared only six times in the seven-week span, and two of those six times occurred at the end of last week - after the heavy play on 777 had caused a stir and centered attention on the strange events that were taking place in the Maryland numbers game. During the entire month of October, there were only three 6's - two on Oct. 13 (669) and ol on Oct. 31 (862).

I hope that nobody who reads these lines will get the mistaken notion that today's column outlines a method for beating a lottery.

There are at least three good reasons for caution.

First, over a short term, red or black can come up ten straight times on a perfectly honest roulette wheel, a pair of honest dice can produce a dozen consecutive passes, and a completely honest lottery can see 7 come up 50 percent more often than 5 and 6 combined - as actually happened in Maryland from Oct. 2 through Nov. 18.

The second reason is that even if Maryland's lottery was rigged in favor of 7 over the past 42 playing days, the same crooks could use the same methods to rig it against 7 during the next 42 days.

And the third reason is that your chance of overcoming the house's 50 percent edge against you is minuscule. The player who assumes that God will intervene in his behalf and nullify the mathematics in gambling odds is doomed to frequent diappointment. That is one proposition you can bet on with confidence.

My only purpose in writing about the imbalance in winning digits has been to alert you to the possibility that there may be something rotten in Denmark, or in Baltimore, or wherever it is that the lottery's managers are headquartered.

An honest lottery is burden enough for the average citizen to bear. The possibility that somebody has been tampering with Maryland's lottery needs more investigation than state authorities have thus far given it.