How To Beat Scratch Lottery Tickets

WIRED reports how a geological statistician figured out how to beat a scratch-off lottery ticket game, discovering a simple trick hidden in the numbers that let him pick winners 90% of the time before scratching the tickets at all. What’s more is that the exploit he stumbled across can be repeated again and again against so-called “extended play” or “baited hook” tickets, spreadsheet-like scratch-offs featuring rows and rows of numbers and near-miss combinations.

In the first game he cracked, called “Tic Tac Toe,” you are supposed to scratch off two rows of numbers and if any of them appeared in a straight line on one of the tic-tac-toe boards, you won. The numbers were from 1-39 and there were 72 cells.

But he found a pattern within the grid.

If one of the tic-tac-toe boards contained a line of numbers where each of the numbers only appeared once on the whole card, then it was a winner. Without scratching the ticket he was able to pick whether it was a winner or not.

Here’s where it gets really tricky: all the stores he bought the tickets from would let him buy a bunch, look them over, and exchange any tickets for new tickets as long as they were unscratched. So you could use this exploit to make sure you only bought tickets with a much higher probability of winning and game the system.

While the specific brand of tickets he first cracked have been pulled from the market and his findings have been reported to various lottery commissions, repeated experiments he’s done have shown that using variations on the “singleton” and “frequency” trick he can increase his payout rate from 30% of the time to 60%.

However, since most of these tickets give out at $2, $4, $6, and $20 amounts, you really have to ask yourself if pursuing employment as a scratcher-offer of tickets is really the best use of your time.

Cracking the Scratch Lottery Code [WIRED]

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  1. Rebecca K-S says:

    I would wager the stores that allowed him to hand-select his tickets were a fluke, not the rule. I certainly never would’ve let anyone do that when I managed the CS desk at my store. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lottery people have some specific rule on that.)

    • Mr. Fix-It says: "Canadian Bacon is best bacon!" says:

      It’s up to the individual retailer here, AFAIK. Some will let you pick them yourself, some will take them out of the case and let you look so long as you don’t touch, and some will only give you the one at the top of the stack.

      • fatediesel says:

        When I worked at a drug store I never would have let anyone hand select tickets. We did daily inventory on lottery tickets and the way we did it was by going by the number on the bottom of the ticket. If we let people look through the tickets it would screw up our inventory system and create more work for the person closing at night.

        • zibby says:

          Almost zero chance you could pick your ticket in NYC…career lottery players already take up about 75% of the clerk’s time in any given bodega between various language difficulties and buying about 60 tickets at a time. No way they are going to tolerate more nonsense.

      • romoish says:

        I spend half my time in convenience stores waiting on some middle aged or elderly person to pick exactly which 6 scratch offs they would like to purchase off the top. God help me if they are allowed to swap them out if they don’t like the looks on the one they are handed.

        • 99 1/2 Days says:

          +1

          Also worked a stint behind the counter. Those people were nuts. They’d spend 20$ on tickets, then scratch, and whatever they’d won they spent on more tickets until they were broke. Then a couple hours later they’d come back with another twenty and start the whole shebang all over again. Over and over, day after day. Ain’t no way I’d wait for these f***ers to “pick.”

    • PsiCop says:

      I’ve seen retailers here in CT refuse to let people cherry-pick tickets, this way. This is not universal, but it’s not guaranteed that you can use this tactic.

    • SG-Cleve says:

      If you worked at the store you could pick out the tickets you want and sell the rest to customers.

      • Rebecca K-S says:

        But I wouldn’t, and you would’ve been written up at the very least at my store for doing that.

        • imasqre says:

          Unless you owned the place.. then that’s a pretty a good idea LOL.
          (Yes, aside from the possibility of getting arrested and fined and lotto licensed revoked)

          • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

            Why? What part of this is illegal?

          • El-Brucio says:

            I don’t think they’d be in danger of getting fined/arrested. Not sure about revoked. None of what they would be doing is technically illegal. It’s just looking at the front of tickets. They aren’t tampering with them in any way to find out.

            I don’t know about the lottery license though, but even then, I doubt the language in the agreement covers it either.

    • Rhizobium says:

      In Ontario, you’re allowed to pick your own ticket. I don’t know if you’re allowed to look at a bunch of them carefully before you make your pick, though!

      • MongoAngryMongoSmash says:

        In Russia, ticket scratches you.

      • Jubes says:

        I live in Ontario where this happened. In highschool my brother worked at a gas station and had to go through Ontario Lottery and Gaming’s training to sell tickets properly. He was told with scratch tickets you always let the customer choose, that way they can’t come back and complain that it’s not fair because they didn’t have the choice. Stupid reason, but it works for the most part. Some people only want certain tickets and all that crap.

        • shepd says:

          Yup, I worked at a gas station. Never went through training, but honestly, if a customer wanted to take the whole reel and pick, feh, I wouldn’t have cared. Especially if they wanted to buy a bunch. As long as they did it quietly, on camera, and out of the way.

          Nothing illegal about it, and there’s nothing illegal about gaming the lottery like tihs, either. I’d feel bummed if he didn’t let me in on it, though. I worked nights there and could have spent 6 hours just checking every single one of the hundreds/thousands we had if he were willing split the winnings 50/50. :)

      • Jubes says:

        That was a general comment lol. Silly site.

    • layton59 says:

      Yeah, the stores were a fluke. Stories like this leave me SCRATCHING my head. Maybe I need a better shampoo. I have never bought a lottery ticket, but I do pick up ones that I find on the ground already scratched. I figure if someone is DUMB enough the buy a ticket then they may be DUMB enough to miss a win. Another bonus to me is the exercise walking over to pick it up off the ground and picking up unsightly litter. I also return shopping carts people abandon in parking lots, all the while muttering what lazy SOB’s they were for not returning their carts.

      • JennQPublic says:

        I was smoking behind work one day (years ago), and watched a homeless man going through a bunch of scratchers that were on the ground. He found $30 in winners, and said he finds them regularly. I don’t know what would compel someone to buy a scratcher and not check it thoroughly.

    • satoru says:

      It depends on the region. Some places like MA do not allow this and you can only purchase tickets sequentially. But as the article indicates MA has enacted laws to specifically address this. Other states do not have such regulation so it really can depend on where you live. In Ontario specifically the practice of choosing your own ticket is still quite common. They’re usually laid out in a slotted tray under glass and the teller pulls it out and you pick out what you want. Some don’t do it purely for security reasons though.

  2. GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

    Isn’t from 30 to 60% of the time about the same rate as random chance?

    • Ben Popken says:

      They’re designed to payout 30% of the time. He increases that to 60% of the time.

    • kosmo @ The Soap Boxers says:

      I think they mean that he consistently boosted his winning percentage from the stated 30% success rate to 60% on average – not that he increased his expected winning percentage in 30-60% of the experiments.

    • SkyRattlers says:

      Las Vegas casinos makes billions by having an edge as small as 51%. This guy figured out a way to make his edge 60%. Now all he has to do is find a way to speed up the process.

    • Hoss says:

      Scratch tickets have a payout ratio which is around 70%. This is different from the ratio of winning tickets because some payouts are quite high. The 70% means the amount of funds returned to players. The 30% is the amount of tickets producing a winner. He is saying that in certain situations he can double the likelihood of getting a winning ticket. (Assuming you find a lottery agent that will let you break a deck of tickets and choose the one’s for purchase Lottery players don’t like to get tickets that have been broken from the deck because there are ways a lottery agent could illegally scan the tickets for winners, and sell the losers.)

  3. Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

    The lottery: A tax on those who can’t do math.

    But for those that can do math, it appears you can pay a smaller tax.

  4. rpm773 says:

    Jesus. It’s bad enough at the convenience store being stuck behind someone doing his lottery business, which always seems to happen to me. But now I’ll have to endure someone reviewing his cards picking which ones he wants to scratch off, arguing with the cashier when he won’t take them back, etc, etc

    I wish Pennsylvania would move buying liquor into convenience stores, and move buying lottery tickets out to state-run lottery stores.

  5. Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

    This discovery is bound to turn convenience stores into inconvenience stores.

  6. Marlin says:

    How are tickets sold in other states? I don;t buy them but the ones I have seen are rolled up in a locked plastic case and the person pulls one out rips it off the roll and thats it. Not selecting or putting back?

    Do other states just have them in a open stack?

  7. kenj0418 says:

    A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

  8. MercuryPDX says:

    The Wired article mentions Washington State lottery as one that has payout anomalies, but I haven’t seen anywhere in my area (Vancouver) that will allow you choose which tickets from a roll you can buy (as this article suggests). It’s always the next one off the roll.

    It is possible that a store employee might see/recognize a winning ticket using a similar method and buy it for themselves, which would be a heck of a way to supplement their 7-11/Gas station attendant wages.

    • satoru says:

      Lotteries aren’t worried about individuals trying to haul scanners into their conveinence stores. It’s more about organized rings that collude with stores to scan or determine winners, rip those out, then sell whatever’s left to the public. As an individual you simply see a ream of tickets AFTER they’ve been culled of all the winning tickets.

    • shepd says:

      In Ontario, a bunch (maybe 40) of the tickets are separated and placed in a holder for the customer to choose from. Normal customers would be happy with that, but there’s no regulation saying the customer can’t ask to see more. Of course, a lot of shopowners wouldn’t want to put in the effort, but if they knew the guy was going to buy a bunch, why not. The rest of the separated tickets are going to be put in the ticket holder anyways.

      BTW: Those same ticket holders often end up repurposed for phone cards around here. :)

  9. Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

    From TFA:
    “I’d have to travel from store to store and spend 45 seconds cracking each card. I estimated that I could expect to make about $600 a day. That’s not bad. But to be honest, I make more as a consultant, and I find consulting to be a lot more interesting than scratch lottery tickets.”

    Yea, “only” $600 a day. I could quit my day job, “work” only 3 days a week and make more money to boot. Now THAT would be more interesting than my day job!

  10. samonela says:

    My strategy with scratchers: Don’t play – you’ll win (keep) your money 100% of the time.

  11. GuJiaXian says:

    A “near miss” is a hit. “Oh, look, they nearly missed.”

  12. SG-Cleve says:

    A lot of the scratch off games have a couple of big prizes and lots of little winners.

    I wonder if the big prizes are really out there randomly. Once the big prizes are won the rest of the unsold tickets become worthless.

    Some states continue to sell tickets even though the advertised jackpot is no longer available. I know that Ohio has a list on their website showing how many major winning tickets are still left for each instant scratch off game. (Possibly as the result of a lawsuit charging them with selling tickets after the jackpot is no longer available).

    • Coles_Law says:

      I know here (KS) they have a similar website, and sell scratch-off tickets 180 days after the last top-tier prize is claimed.

      I’m fine with that; getting a random $5 from a scratch ticket never hurts.

    • wrjohnston91283 says:

      some states have a website showing which scratch games still have large prizes available.

    • Joedel263 says:

      Connecticut stops selling a game as soon as all top prizes have been awarded. you then have 180 days from then to claim any other outstanding tickets.

  13. g051051 says:

    Did you notice that this actually happened in 2003?

    • Hoss says:

      And that he told the lottery and they corrected the situation. Booo

    • jebarringer says:

      Did you notice that that’s why they said “the specific brand of tickets…have been pulled,” and that they went on to say that he can increase his winnings on recent tickets using similar methods?

  14. krom says:

    But it makes for a potential market for a rapid-ticket-scratch-off device!

  15. blogger X says:

    Statistics for the win!

  16. There's room to move as a fry cook says:

    I’m sure lottery ticket sellers are wise to this – and only put out the losers.

  17. Magspie says:

    He didn’t cherry pick the ones he wanted to buy. He bought a bunch and then returned the ones he didn’t want before scratching them.

    • MarvinMar says:

      This is why I always wanted to invent a little screen that could look though the scratch-off material.
      Like the red plastic film you look through on cereal box games.

      Buy 20 cards, See whats underneath, return losers and cash in winners.

      Failing that…. how about a machine that would reapply the scratch off material from scratched cards?

      • MarvinMar says:

        From the article…

        “the printers have become increasingly worried about forensic breaking, the possibility of criminals using sophisticated imaging technology to see underneath the latex. “

        Guess I’m not the only one who thought of this. Does that mean I have a criminal mind?

        • satoru says:

          This has been a problem for quite awhile. I recall back when I was in Toronto (almost 10+ years ago) they had a scandal where it was possible to see the numbers using x-ray or some other insane piece of equipment. The game was pulled, but the political cartoonists at the time mocked it showing a person pulling up to a shop with a huge machine and wanting to buy tickets.

          I think the shift has gone from individuals trying to game the system, to it being an actual organized crime. Even if a ticket system is cracked, the impact a single person can have is small. The article mentioned that even with the system cracked, he could only realistically make about $650 a day. But if combined in aggregate with other criminals across a region, the amount of money can be significant. So take that $650/day and add 100 people buying and scratching tickets and suddenly you’re talking about real money even after each person’s ‘cut’.

  18. Shtetl G says:

    Mr. Srivastava needs to write a book on how to beat scratch off tickets. That,s where the money is with the hard core scratch off lottery crowd.

  19. econobiker says:

    Information about the Joan Ginther, the lady who has won the TX scratch off lotteries multiple times:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/14/joan-ginther-wins-texas-l_n_645520.html
    “After all, the only way to win is to keep playing. Ginther is smart enough to know that’s how you beat the odds: she earned her doctorate from Stanford University in 1976, then spent a decade on faculty at several colleges in California.

    Teaching math”

  20. psm321 says:

    I’ve never seen tickets that come with one side revealed already (which these seem to be). In all the ones I’ve seen you need to scratch off both the “your numbers” and the “winning numbers”

  21. Sure I could agree with you, but then we'd BOTH be wrong. says:

    I make my own scratch-off lottery tickets at home.

  22. 4Real says:

    You have a 1 in 5 chance to win something off a scratch off ticket so buy $5 worth of the same kind and you will win something.

  23. catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

    eh, here they either come in a roll that’s part of a countertop display of 12 or more different games, one game per roll, with the rolls locked in until the lottery serviceperson comes to add tickets – or they come in a vending machine. and since you can’t see the ticket you are about to get, due the to the placement of the roll, this would not work at all

  24. czarrie says:

    Lovely, I already have people who ask me for the roll number, “does this card have a white stripe on it?”, etc…lottery people find patterns constantly that are absolutely meaningless, but still important enough to inconvenience the person behind the counter selling them.

    Kudos though if he did find a pattern, but keeping in mind that’s its not universally applicable. Come back when you have the magic scratch-off bullet.

  25. MrEvil says:

    Won’t work with Texas scratch offs, since they’re sold in rolls you have to take whatever ticket is next off the roll.

  26. Wolfbird says:

    Christ, now I’m going to be stuck in the “express lane” at my local supermarket even longer while dumbass welfare recipients argue which lotto cards they want. DIAF, consumerist article.

  27. PupJet says:

    There is another trick to for here in Washington state (or really any state I would think).

    Scratch off the entire ticket and look for three letters (or in some cases the number 0) that are small. If those three letters (or two letter and a number) spell out (or abbreviate) a number (TW0, FIV, THR, etc..) then it’s usually a winner. :P