Filling out a lottery ticketIf you win the lottery, and we mean win the lottery as in the whole shebang, not three numbers or some other minor prize, you’d be set for life right? Well, that is certainly what 433 ticket holders in the Filipino lottery thought, only to discover they would be sharing the jackpot with, well, the other 432 winners!

Imagine landing all the numbers, the excitement, the thoughts of telling your boss where to stick it, and then the terrible sinking feeling when you discovered that your huge win was actually something rather different. Initially, many people might feel cheated and that something must have gone wrong or there had been some terrible mistake.

The reality, at least in this instance, was different, and whether you call it bad luck, a bad choice of numbers, or just one of those things, there is perhaps a lesson in there for anyone who plays the lottery. The underlying principle is the same whether you are playing in the Philippines, the UK, or anywhere else.

When it comes to the lottery and other such chances to win huge sums, the advertising slogan, “It could be you” is certainly true. That is a fact, albeit being rather improbable that it actually will be you. But if it is you, perhaps there are ways that you can try and make sure it is only you. Not you and another 400 people!

Why Did 433 People Win the Filipino Lottery?

Philippine Lottery logoThis strange scenario unfolded in October 2022 in the government-run Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) grand lotto draw. A maths professor from the University of the Philippines was quoted as saying that the chances of getting 433 winners were “1 out of 1 followed by 1,224 zeros”. That’s a lot of zeroes, and the sort of chance that we guess would be classed as statistically impossible.

However, far be it from us to suggest that Dr Guido David may have got his logic wrong but … we think he got his maths wrong. We’ll return to why shortly, but let’s take a closer look at the draw and what happened.

236m Filipino pesos was up for grabs, around £3.55m based on exchange rates at the time. However, with 433 winners, each was set to receive approximately 545,000 pesos, which at current exchange rates (January 2023) is worth a little over £8,000. Understandably, those winners, and indeed many others who played, not to mention the authorities, suspected something may be afoot.

Was the draw rigged? Were the winning tickets fake? This was, by some distance, the most winners the Filipino lottery had ever had. Indeed, as far as we are aware no major lotto prize has ever had anywhere near that many joint-winners of a major prize. For many this was just too much of a “coincidence” and, therefore, there had to be more to it than that.

A politician, Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, the senate minority leader said it was “strange and unusual” and vowed to hold an enquiry. He was determined, he said, to “maintain and protect the integrity of these gambling games that we have authorised”. Whilst it may not satisfy all members of the public, especially those who love a conspiracy theory, and, perhaps more reasonably, those that are aware of bribery convictions against lottery officials in the past, as far as we are aware investigators have found nothing untoward with the draw.

The general manager of the PCSO said that there were no irregularities, all procedures had been followed and there was nothing to suggest any of the winners were false claimants. Melquiades Robles noted that “Lottery is a game of chance, nothing is definite and it is uncontrollable.” That is certainly true. So, what happened?

The Winning Numbers

Multiples of 9 calculatorThe winning numbers for the draw were:

9, 18, 27, 36, 45 and 54

It does not take a mathematical genius or expert codebreaker to see that the winning numbers were multiples of nine: essentially the nine times table up to six (six times nine being 54). Does this explain why there were so many winners? We have to feel the answer to that question is yes.

Whilst the lottery is, as organising general manager Robles said, “a game of chance” and “uncontrollable”, human nature is neither of those things. Human nature and psychology are often very predictable, which is in part how “magicians”, such as Derren Brown are able to perform their tricks.

Humans love patterns and whilst some people opt for a lucky dip with their numbers, others use dates of birth, street addresses, “lucky numbers” or other picks that mean something to them, some prefer to pick numbers that follow some sort of pattern, or sequence. This may be because the sequence appeals, or it may be due to an (evidently very mistaken) belief that nobody else would pick such numbers.

Example from the UK

If you think 433 people picking 9, 18, 27, 36, 45 and 54 is too far-fetched or strange, perhaps some information about the UK draw would put that in perspective. Precise figures on how many people regularly play what numbers are not available and have changed over time.

However, in the earliest days of the National Lottery, when more people played and there was less awareness about what other players might do, it is thought that as many as 50,000 people regularly opted to play the numbers one, two, three, four, five and six! Even now around 10,000 play those same six numbers most weeks, according to mathematician and algorithms expert Dr Simon Cox of Southampton University.

Had those numbers hit with an expected jackpot of £10m, those 10,000 players might have been rather heartbroken to learn they were scooping not £10m, but a mere £1,000! Whilst such popular numbers have never actually won the UK lottery, we did get an early warning of what happened in the Philippines in 1995.

Back then, 133 winners shared a jackpot of more than £16m, their expected mega win dissolving to “just” £122,510 each. Whilst the numbers 7, 17, 23, 32, 38 and 42 might seem random, albeit somewhat evenly spaced out, in fact they were not. The winning numbers, picked fair and square, independently, by over 100 people, all came from the central column of the slip from which one selects their numbers.

Why Do People Select Numbers Like This?

Woman thinking

We do not really know why people choose sets of numbers, such as the middle column, the first six possible options, or multiples of nine (or any other number). It may be convenience, a stunning lack of imagination, our natural tendency to seek and favour patterns and order, or, as said, the belief that nobody else would “dare” pick such numbers. People might deliberately choose numbers, such as one to six, thinking this is the best way to ensure that if they win, they do not have to share the jackpot.

If that is the case, such people are clearly mistaken, as we have seen with jackpots shared by many winners in the UK and Philippines (and quite probably other countries too). Whilst people might think choosing one to six is audacious, sadly for them if they won, thousands of other people would have had the same idea.

Players that think they are being clever in doing this realise that one to six is just as likely as any other combination to win. However, there are many other players who would be astounded if such a combination came up and who would think it was impossible, and even a sign of foul play.

Many people have a poor grasp of maths in general and probability in particular. As such, many in the Philippines not only questioned how it was possible that so many people could win but also how those numbers, multiples of nine, could possibly come up. But 9, 18, 27, 36, 45 and 54 is just as likely to come up as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, which in turn is just as likely as 1, 7, 9, 12, 38, 44, or indeed any other combination of numbers you can think of.

In the same way, some people might assume a coin toss was rigged if heads came up six times in a row. However, six heads is just as likely as three heads, followed by three tails, or alternating heads and tails, or indeed any specific sequence of six. Which returns us to one of the things we mentioned at the start of this article: what can we learn from the Philippines and the fact that 433 picked the same numbers?

Best Lottery Numbers to Pick

As already noted, different people choose their numbers in a range of ways. There are some who, as some roulette players do, study past results, looking for “hot” and “cold” numbers. On the one hand, some may think that if a number has come up a lot recently, it is likely to do so again, whilst others may believe that if a number hasn’t been drawn for a while, it is “due”.

In March 2022 it was reported that the five most drawn numbers were:

  1. Number 40, drawn 350 times
  2. 27, drawn 347 times
  3. 23, drawn 346 times
  4. 39, drawn 345
  5. 38, also drawn 345 times

In contrast to these, more recent data, from early 2023, showed that 13 was indeed the least lucky ball, appearing only 298 times. By then, number 38 had leapt to the “top of the charts” and been drawn 407 times, a whopping 109 more times than 13.

So, does that mean that 38 is a must for your lottery pick and you should avoid 13 like the plague? Does this show that the numbers in the high 30s are ones you should always pick? No, no it doesn’t. Whilst some might suggest that the balls or machinery is biased and these stats prove it, they do no such thing. First, different sets of balls and machines are used and have been replaced and changed over the years.

Second, and even more importantly, whilst the National Lottery has been going for almost 30 years, having started in 1994, in statistical terms it is a mere infant. With the new higher number of balls there are over 45m different combinations and we have had just a few thousand draws. It has been estimated that we would need a data set of around 20m draws in order to have an 80% certainty about any predictions. As such, any “patterns” or “bias” we now see is merely standard variance, completely normal and, from a predictive point of view, entirely meaningless.

Best Numbers

If the numbers drawn really are random, or as random as can be, what numbers should you pick? The logic of anyone trying to avoid numbers picked by others is correct: why share your jackpot with others if you can avoid it? But clearly opting for numbers that are sequential, structured or patterned is not the way to do that. So, what is?

Well, we cannot be certain but there are a few pointers we suggest may help:

  • Avoid numbers one to 31. These appear in dates of birth, be it months, days or both, and so are popular choices.
  • Avoid the most commonly drawn numbers, as these are picked by large numbers of people who do not believe the draws are random.
  • Opt for a Lucky Dip. The simplest way to get random numbers is through a Lucky Dip, though of course there remains a very slim chance (around one in 45 million!) that you could end up with one to six this way!
  • Avoid “round” numbers, chiefly those ending in five or zero, as many are naturally drawn to these.
  • Pick odd numbers. Various pieces of research have shown people tend to favour even numbers, so odds ones should be picked by fewer other players.
  • Pick prime numbers. If people choose multiples of their favourite or lucky numbers, primes will help you.
  • Mix it up. This is just our own theory but we feel a mix of sequenced numbers and random ones is unlikely to be duplicated (at least by too many people). So, for example, you might go for 37, 41, 42, 43, 53, 59.