Nothing to See Here: People Who Sell Lottery Tickets Are Just Really Lucky

“I don’t have nothing to hide,” Lounes Issaad told WUSA News in D.C. when it questioned him about his winning $1 million lottery ticket. But does he not have nothing to hide? Some are not unwilling to question whether he doesn’t, wondering whether he in fact didn’t do nothing wrong or not, given that he sold himself the ticket.

But not among those people, apparently, are D.C. Lottery officials. They wouldn’t say they didn’t have questions about Issaad’s win, but they definitely didn’t say that they did.

“It is important to note that frequent wins by individuals, including lottery agents, do not definitively mean improper activity has occurred,” a D.C. Lottery spokesperson told WUSA. “It is important to note that the information provided to you on frequent winners does not, and cannot show how much money an individual spends playing.”

It is important to note those things, but it is also important to note that this isn’t the first time Issaad has won the D.C. Lottery by playing tickets he bought from himself at the convenience store he owns.

He has won 28 times.

WUSA says Issaad has had “27 payouts that averaged $30,000 each,” but since that’s a total of $810,000 they are evidently not including the $1 million prize in that number. So it appears that Issaad has won the lottery at least 28 times, earning at least $1,810,000 (not including any payouts less than $600 because those don’t have to be reported). I’m no statistician, but that seems like a lot.

Statisticians agreed.

George Washington University statistics professor Dan Ullman described the odds of someone achieving Issaad’s results by chance as “slim,” though he immediately downgraded them to “very slim.” He then immediately downgraded them yet again to “[o]ne in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 0000,000,000,000,000,000,0000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,” a number so large that WUSA lost track of it and twice used four zeros between commas instead of three, and somewhat more impressively, a number that according to Ullman is “larger than the number of electrons in the universe.”

But is it really? It’s not like Dan Ullman went out and counted them. Scientists who have tried to estimate the number of atoms in the universe generally end up with a number around 1080, and so there would be at least that many electrons, something like ten thousand quadrillion vigintillion of the little bastards. Depending on how many zeros WUSA meant to use, the odds against this guy winning 28 times, including a $1 million prize, are only about ten thousand septillion to one. [Wrong! See below.] So let’s not rush to judgment here.

Or, let’s. Because WUSA’s investigation also found that over an eight-year period, three of the top five winners were also lottery retailers, one of whom won 123 times. What are the odds of that, other statistician? “The chance that the top three occupations are all lottery retailers is one in 10,000,000,000,” said Dan Naiman, a professor at Johns Hopkins, and those are long odds for sure but frankly Ullman’s number was a lot more impressive, you know? With the electrons and stuff. Let’s go back to that one.

“That is statistically ridiculous,” said University of Illinois Professor Emeritus John Kindt about the bigger number, and you can see why he’s an emeritus because that’s a much better quote. “It’s not just ridiculous—it’s statistically ridiculous.” According to Kindt, who is an expert on lotteries, results like these should have triggered red flags in the D.C. Lottery’s system years ago.

They didn’t, but red flags are flying now. Turns out that what triggers them in the D.C. Lottery’s system are not odds-defying results but investigative reporters. “When a suspicious activity comes to the D.C. Lottery’s attention,” the spokesman said, “the D.C. Lottery immediately begins a review,” and it immediately began one of those after it learned WUSA was investigating. And guess what? It has already cleared “one of the top winners” (it wasn’t clear whether he meant Issaad). The review “indicated the individual is an unusually frequent player,” you see. So, that’s the answer. True, on average you’d have to scratch one ticket a second until approximately the end of the universe to get these results, but you can’t say it couldn’t happen.

And that’s Issaad’s explanation, too. “Believe me,” he said, “I was scratching a lot.” Okay, but remember that here “a lot” means, like, septillions. Is that impossible? Nothing’s impossible. But it is statistically ridiculous.

UPDATE: I guess I owe Dan Ullman an apology, not because he actually did go out and count all the electrons in the universe but for suggesting he got the comparison wrong. My “ten thousand septillion” figure was based on a belief there were 27 or maybe 29 zeros in the number he gave WUSA. But that’s wrong. It looks like I counted the number of groups of zeroes and intended to multiply by three, but then got distracted by something shiny and didn’t. Assuming the extra zeros mentioned above are typos, there are 87 zeroes in the number, so that it is in fact larger than the estimated number of electrons in the universe (generally in the neighborhood of a measly 1080). As for my “one ticket a second forever” estimate, I just made that up (although it seems in the ballpark). If I’m having trouble multiplying by three I’m sure as hell not going to try to work that one out.