An interesting rumor began circulating in the last couple of days: on election night, the Illinois Lottery "Pick Three" numbers were 6-6-6. Within hours, I'd heard the same thing from two different friends. As this sounded too coincidental to be true, I took a closer look.
It turned out to be extremely easy to investigate. The Illinois lottery publishes all of its results online, and you can search all the way back to 1980. With a couple of clicks, I determined that none of the draws on Tuesday November 4th included a combination of 6-6-6. Here are all of that day's picks:
11/04/2008 Evening Pick 3 8-4-5
11/04/2008 Evening Pick 4 2-7-2-0
11/04/2008 Little Lotto 02-09-21-29-30
11/04/2008 Mega Millions 10-21-23-41-55
11/04/2008 Midday Pick 3 6-0-5
11/04/2008 Midday Pick 4 9-3-8-2
But take a look at the evening pick of the very next day, after Barack Obama's election:
11/05/2008 Evening Pick 3 6-6-6
Naturally, many will read some kind of significance into this. As for me, I do think it's interesting --- but I'm far more interested in probability than in numerology.
As the three lottery balls are drawn independently, the odds of getting three sixes (or any other three numbers) are .1x.1x.1, or one in a thousand. Indeed, this calculation matches the odds posted on the Illinois Lottery's website. So far this year, there have been 1160 Pick 3 or Pick 4 drawings (the only games, as far as I can tell, with balls between 0 and 9 drawn independently). By the laws of probability, there should have been only one or two 6-6-6 combinations drawn this year. In fact, there have been five. (Nov 5th, Oct 23rd, March 22nd, and Jan 16th on the Pick 3, and July 5th as part of a Pick 4.) In other words, this combination isn't as rare as you'd expect. And besides November 5, none of those other dates even comes close to corresponding with significant Obama milestones or primary victories, or good debate performances.
Further evidence that 6-6-6 isn't as unusual as you'd expect: In all of last year, there were 1364 Pick 3 or Pick 4 drawings; 6-6-6 occurred three times (again, more than the laws of probability would predict).
There will always be those who read significance into the occurrance of certain numbers. Remember the kooks who said Ronald Wilson Reagan was the antichrist, because each of his three names contained six letters? In the current case, I'm more inclined to believe that the state lottery is the province of the devil than to believe that the November 5th Evening Pick 3 signals that Barack Obama is the antichrist.
But if, on January 20th of next year, one of our goats gives birth to a kid with seven heads and ten horns, I'll make sure I publish the news here.