This past spring Ron Gorneau of Bedford had a beef with the Virginia Lottery over one of the agency’s games. In June, he purchased two identical “Bingo Blast” tickets on the same day, six hours apart, at different lottery outlets, each with the same series of 105 numbers.
Gorneau believed that proved the game is rigged. But when I checked with lottery officials, they told me that the individual numbers on “Fast Play” game tickets — such as Bingo Blast — aren’t randomly generated, as Gorneau had assumed they were.
The only time lottery terminals randomly generate numbers is when players of the agency’s “Draw” games — such as Mega Millions, Pick 3, $1,000,000 Money Ball and some others — choose the “Easy Pick” function for their numbers, the lottery officials said.
Enter Gary Humphreys of Vinton, who had an eye-popping experience with the $1,000,000 Money Ball game on July 8.
“I purchased two $1,000,000 Money Ball tickets from a lottery machine located at the Food Lion store in Vinton. I selected the Easy Pick function to get my two sets of numbers. My tickets were printed nine seconds apart and I receive an identical set of numbers.”
Humphreys enclosed a photo of those tickets as proof. I sent that to Virginia lottery spokesman John Hagerty, who confirmed the tickets were legit.
Here’s how $1,000,000 Money Ball works: Players choose five numbers, from one to 35, or they can choose “Easy Pick,” in which the lottery terminals randomly generate the numbers. Each ticket costs $2. Twice per week, there’s a drawing of five numbered balls. There’s also a 36th unnumbered ball, which is gold.
If a player hits all five numbers, the prize is $100,000. If the gold ball is drawn before the fifth numbered ball, the prize climbs to $1 million. The odds of winning $100,000 are one in 376,992. The odds of winning the $1 million prize are one in 2,337,350.
“What are the odds that the easy pick function could generate an identical set of random numbers back to back nine seconds apart?” Humphreys asked. “The odds have to be more than actually winning the lottery. … Can the Virginia Lottery explain how this could happen?”
I forwarded Humphreys’ questions to lottery spokesman John Hagerty, and today we have some answers.
First, the odds of buying two identical Easy Pick numbers nine seconds apart are precisely the same odds as winning $100,000 in that game, Hagerty told me after consulting with the agency’s numbers wizards. Except that Humphreys’ numbers didn’t hit, which means that he won zip, just like most of the game’s players.
“To be on the safe side, and because it’s natural for people to question unusual events, I asked our security folks to check to see if there could have been any malfunction or technical issue,” Hagerty replied in an email. “Everything came up normal.”
“Is this unusual? Yes,” Hagerty added. “Is it unprecedented? No.”
In fact, chances are Humphrey’s tickets weren’t the only matching randomly generated Money Ball tickets that day. Under the laws of probability, there’s a 99 percent chance that for every 4,615 tickets sold, there are two that match. And of the 39,134 Money Ball tickets that were purchased July 8, 20,511 were Easy Picks, Hagerty said.
That suggests there were other matching Easy Pick tickets that day, though it’s extremely unlikely any of the others were purchased by the same player.
Hagerty added: “When our system generates a set of Easy Pick numbers, we purposely do not prevent those same numbers from coming up again. If our system did so, it would not be truly random. The nine-second time difference may seem remarkable to the human mind, but to a computer it’s immaterial.”
Humphreys also wanted to know if the lottery would have paid two jackpots if all five numbers had hit. The answer is yes, Hagerty said, noting that James Kronenburg of Roanoke won three $100,000 jackpots with three identical tickets in a different drawing game back in October. In Kronenburg’s case, the numbers were not Easy Picks.
Humphreys remains suspicious, though. When he plays in the future, “I will no longer use the Easy Pick function,” he said.
After his recent experience, it’s easy to understand why.
Here’s an update to a June 30 column about a local radio station’s attempt to move its antenna so it’ll have a stronger signal in the Roanoke Valley: Tom Kennedy, general manager of 101.5 FM, “the valley’s music place,” reports that the FCC on July 20 approved the station’s application to move its antenna from Coyner Mountain to Mill Mountain.
Kennedy said that’ll probably happen in October, which will be good news for Andy Corbin.
“I cannot hear them on the radio in my basement in Vinton,” Corbin wrote after the column about the station. Between now and the move, Corbin noted, listeners can stream the station online at www.1015themusicplace.com.
“Thanks for sharing such FABULOUS news — we can’t wait for the stronger signal!” wrote Nicole Sheppard.
The column even brought the station at least one new fan.
“Thanks for the article about 101.5. I have tuned in and really enjoy the variety. I did not know they were there,” wrote Roanoke lawyer Mark Roberts.
Thank you, readers, for all the emails, calls and letters. Please keep that stuff coming.