An essay by Pat Delmarre, as provided by Robert Dawson
Art by Scarlett O’Hairdye
“Don’t you ever feel guilty?” I asked Brianna.
“Naaah.” She tapped her nails, hot pink with black Klingon alphabet decals, nervously on the arm of the couch. “And if I do, I just think about that Venge bicycle I’ll be riding next week. Twenty thousand smackeroos, including the custom respray. And that’s just the beginning.” She smiled luxuriantly, and took another big handful of chips. “What are you planning to do with yours, Pat?”
“I haven’t really thought beyond paying off my student loan,” I confessed. “Maybe a BMW convertible or something.”
“Well, better start thinking, kiddo. In an hour, we’re going to be rich. Probably.”
We’d been working on it for almost a year.
Brianna and I had been not-quite-making-out on the couch, with the evening news ignored in the background. I was stroking the smooth skin of her upper arm, making slow progress towards more interesting places, when suddenly she grasped my hand and pulled it firmly away from her.
“Aw, Bri–don’t be like that.”
“It’s OK, Pat. Just listen to this first.” She pointed with her other hand towards the TV.
“I don’t get it. Nobody won the lottery: what kind of a story is that?”
“Yeah, but did you see how big the next jackpot will be? Thirty million dollars.”
“That happens a lot more since they stopped paying small prizes and put it all onto one big one.”
“Yes, but don’t you see? With a lottery like this one, six numbers out of forty-nine in any order, there are only fourteen million combinations. So with two-dollar tickets, the expected value of each ticket is more than the cost. There’s got to be an angle on this.” She got her Genius At Work look.
“Yeah,” I said. “Only if you won the jackpot, with this many people buying tickets, you’d probably have to share it. There goes your edge.” I tried to wriggle my hand free.
She held on firmly. “Pat. It’s rolled over for five weeks in a row. What does that tell you?”
“Errrh, nobody bet on the winning numbers?”
“Smarty-pants. But we know there’s a bazillion people buying tickets, so they must all be clustering on other numbers.”
“Grandchildren’s birthdays, 1-2-3-4-5-6, things like that. They’re just as likely to win, of course, but if they do, they’ll have to share. I bet if we bought enough tickets on the boring numbers, we’d have a good investment.”
“Way. Voltaire and Le Condamine did something like it in the eighteenth century. I learned about it in my history of math class.”
“Bri, maybe this Condom guy had fourteen million dollars to invest, but I don’t, even if the odds are good. You don’t either.”
“Right. So we get partners. You find ways of doing that, that’s what your B.Comm. courses are there for. Me, I’ll work on herding the sheep a bit tighter. Improve our odds.” She grinned and put my hand back, about where it had been before the interruption. “Now, where were we?” I did not answer; Brianna’s lips were in the way.
Next week, she handed me her phone. “What do you think, Pat?” she asked. “Think they’ll like it?”
It was a smartphone app that she’d just finished writing. It had a cute pink and cranberry cross-stitch theme, and was called “Mother’s Lotto Helper.” Tell it your family’s birthdays, and it would recommend lottery picks based on them. When the time came, of course, our own tickets would have numbers that couldn’t be read as dates.
She put it online, and charged ninety-nine cents. For that, she promised free upgrades–any time she wrote a new selection algorithm, everybody would get it automatically, without even having to ask. Within a few days, orders were flooding in. “Okay, Pat,” she said, showing me the first week’s receipts. “I’m doing my part–over to you.”
That week, five people split the big lottery prize. I thought we’d drop the scheme, but Brianna was undeterred. “I’ve looked up the history of this lottery, and a big rollover jackpot like this happens every year or two. When it happens again, we’ll have our ducks in a row.”
So I looked for investors. I checked carefully that what we were doing was legal; it seemed to be, except maybe in a few jurisdictions. I wrote up a carefully worded prospectus and circulated it to select prospects (offering void where prohibited by law). Shares were a thousand dollars each; we would put the money in an escrow account and only act when the odds gave at least a thirty per cent edge. I’d done my homework; despite the unconventional nature of the investment, the shares sold well. The big break was hooking Dad’s stockbroker; he sat me down in his office and grilled me for half an hour about the details, but then sold two thousand shares himself, taking his commission in more shares.
Over the next few months, the prizes stayed low. Brianna worked like a trouper; she ported the app to Windows, Linux, and the iPhone, and every few weeks she added another version. Some of the premium versions cost as much as fifty dollars; one version was free.
There was “Lucky Stars,” with an astrology theme. The control panel of “eNum” looked like something out of Star Trek, all simulated LEDs and pulsing blue plasma. “Speculator” looked more like an online quarterly report from a very high-class mutual fund, sober Garamond text on simulated ecru paper and elegant pie-charts in muted old-money shades of red and blue. And “Blessings” used Bible verses to help you choose your numbers: Jabez, the Wise Steward, the whole nine cubits.
They were all the same program underneath the chrome. And they all had the same hidden message: hands off our numbers!
I helped Brianna on the look and feel, but she did the coding herself–I’m not clever that way like she is. I forget how many hundred thousand copies we sold, but it was a lot. All the money got put aside for Stage Two; when the prize grew large enough for us to act, we were going to have some real skin in the game.
As our apps got popular, we figured, more and more people would use the numbers that they suggested, and fewer and fewer different combinations would be bought. By June, it seemed to be working; the lottery would consistently go for two or three draws before a winner was declared. Once the media got onto the story, the resulting lottery fever just boosted our sales further. There were even a couple news stories about our apps; Brianna couldn’t have been happier.
One night Brianna came home, excited, with a paperback book in her hand. “The game is afoot, Pat!”
“Sherlock Holmes, silly. That’s six draws without a winner. This week we go for it. Just let me fine-tune the selection algorithm and I’ll put it online. If this book’s right”–the title was Modern Mentalism: Secrets of the Experts–“I think I can reserve another half-million combinations that are safe for us, combinations that are psychologically unlikely. Sales have been better than planned–we’ve got an extra million in the bank, so we’ve got enough money to buy those tickets too.”
“Couldn’t we just hang onto the extra, Bri? Then we’d have something left even if the draw doesn’t go our way.”
“Sissy. The expected payoff, if we win on an unshared number this week, is almost two to one. It doesn’t get much better than that. We want as much money on this week’s game as we can get. But look, Pat–I’ve got a shitload of coding to do, if I’m going to build this into the final release. I’d better get at it.”
She commandeered the desk. She took off the silver USB-drive pendant that she wore even in bed, plugged it into the computer, and started coding and testing. I did what I could to help. I brought her vegetarian pizza and Jolt Cola, and I stood behind her chair and massaged her scalp and shoulders when she needed it. For almost twenty-four hours, she worked nonstop, only getting up to use the can. Finally she sighed, hit ENTER, and turned the machine off.
“All finished,” she slurred, and fell asleep across the keyboard.
We spent the next week buying lottery tickets online. Ten million of them; even with the new e-tickets, you can’t do that quickly. By the day of the draw, we had seventy-three percent of the combinations covered, one ticket per number, and almost a hundred percent profit if we won and didn’t have to share. We stood, personally, to make almost four million each.
Finally, the evening arrived. The leadup to the draw took ten minutes; it felt like a lifetime. Brianna was fiddling with eNum, her favorite version of the program, on her phone. Suddenly she shrieked and threw the phone down as if it was red-hot.
“What is it?” I asked.
She finally calmed down enough to talk coherently. “Hell’s bells! I was so tired, I shipped the update with the freaking test stub linked in, not the random number generator! Everybody’s going to get the same set of numbers!”
She picked up the phone and thrust it in front of my face. “See? Thirty-two, thirty-four, thirty-eight, forty-one, forty-three, and forty-six.”
“Well, they can’t sue us, I guess. We promised them numbers, they got numbers. Hey, Bri! That looks like one of our safe combinations, doesn’t it? Nothing below thirty-one, no arithmetic sequences, and all that.”
“It is. I didn’t think it would matter. I guess it probably won’t. I hope–” She looked at the screen and her voice died away. The MC’s leggy blonde assistant was just putting the sixth ball into the display rack.
We’d won the jackpot, alright.
So, by an incredible long shot, had all three million of our customers. Each ticket won about seventeen dollars. After dividing with the other investors, our share came to one dollar and sixty-two cents each. Just about paid for the chips we’d been eating.
Lotteries are for idiots.
Pat Delmarre has a B.Comm., three jobs, and a humongous student debt. Like Mount Everest sized? Pat lives with Brianna Flick, provided that Brianna does not have any more so-called clever ideas. Ever. Because eating Kraft Dinner every day is getting totally boring.
Robert Dawson has a Ph.D., teaches mathematics at a Nova Scotian University, and writes science fiction. He has taught probability theory many times, and has never bought a lottery ticket. These two facts may be connected.
Scarlett O’Hairdye is a burlesque performer, producer and artist. To learn more, visit her site at www.scarlettohairdye.com.
“Lucky Stars” is © 2014 Robert Dawson
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Scarlett O’Hairdye
This story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Perihelion.Follow us online: