The lottery game was Bank a Million, a contest launched in 2015 with the tag line that if a winner matches the numbers drawn, “You bank the $1,000,000. We pay the taxes.” On Saturday night, Virginia Lottery draw show host Liz Hayes narrated the picks, as usual, as the numbered ping-pong balls were blown with forced air up into tubes.
What happened next was decidedly not usual.
“Tonight’s first number is 16,” Hayes began. “Our second number, 13. Third number tonight is 14. Next we have 18, followed by 17 and 15. And your Bonus Ball tonight is 19.”
Or, in order of lowest to highest: 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19.
John Hagerty, a spokesman for the Virginia Lottery — which generates approximately $1.6 million per day for the state’s K-12 public schools, according to its website — said “it’s always fun when those random numbers come out in some sort of discernible sequence,” such as 1-1-1 in the Pick 3 or 0-0-0-0 in the Pick 4. But the picks Saturday night were a first for him.
“I’ve been with the Virginia Lottery since Bank a Million began, and I don’t recall the winning numbers for this game ever coming out in a full numeric sequence like this,” Hagerty wrote in an email to The Washington Post.
According to the Virginia Lottery site, the odds of winning are 1 in 3,838,380.
As for the likelihood of that specific sequence?
“Is it very unlikely that the numbers would show up 13 to 19? Yes,” said Jordan Ellenberg, a math professor at University of Wisconsin at Madison who wrote about the lottery in his book “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.”
But any other set of numbers is “equally unlikely,” Ellenberg quickly added, speaking by phone from his front porch in Madison. “On the one hand, it’s very striking. On the other hand, a very improbable thing happens every time the lottery numbers are drawn. Every particular outcome is very unlikely. Otherwise people would win too much.”
The thing is, “our brains are pattern finders,” he said. “We look at this number, and we say, ‘That’s incredible: All seven are in a row.’ We might look at another list of numbers and say, ‘That’s garbage.’ But another person might say, ‘That’s my birthday and my girlfriend’s birthday — we should get married!’”
Patterns we find, Ellenberg said, are “a personal thing, not a mathematical thing.”
Catalin Barboianu, a Romanian researcher and author of the book “The Mathematics of Lottery: Odds, Combinations, Systems,” offered a similar assessment about the Bank a Million draw.
“This is quite an event! It is amazing not from a statistical/probabilistic perspective (as any specific combination of numbers has the same probability to be drawn), but rather from a regular lottery player’s perspective,” he wrote in an email to The Post.
Barboianu explained that most lottery players “avoid playing certain particular lines” because of the “fallacious belief” that such lines have less chance to be drawn than “regular” lines.
“Perhaps the lines holding numbers in succession are the most avoided ones,” he said. “And still, it has the same probability like any other line.”
And a lucky few on Saturday benefited from their choices.
One ticket, Hagerty said, won $500,000, and another won $250,000. Both were purchased in Richmond.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Hagerty said, “neither has come forward yet.”