Using the numbers from a fortune cookie to snag millions sounds more like a tired movie trope than a legitimate tactic for playing the lottery—right?
Actually, not so fast. As it turns out, the cookies that come with every Chinese takeout order do seem to contain a bit of a numerical edge. How do we know this? Thank Walt Hickey, a culture writer and numbers cruncher at FiveThirtyEight, the Nate Silver-founded polling site that turns statistics into pop culture.
To start, Hickey ordered a nice, big sample size of more than 1,000 cookies from wholesale retailer Wonton Food Inc, which calls itself the world’s leading fortune cookie manufacturer and the purveyor of the Panda brand that Hickey chose, as well as Golden Bowl, the brand we used at my parents' takeout restaurant of 20 years. Though Hickey only got 1,035 of the 1,050 cookies he was promised, that was more than enough to measure their magic. In total, Hickey identified 676 unique fortunes, 556 unique “lucky number” combinations, and 173 Mandarin words and phrases.
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“In order to figure out if one set of six numbers was legitimately luckier than a random set of six numbers,” Hickey writes, “we would need some sort of highly transparent, public-facing random number generation system carried out over years and years at organized intervals with specific monetary amounts allocated to specific chance outcomes.” Rather than develop such a system internally, Hickey spent a month doing the logical thing: playing the lottery.
Okay, not quite. Hickey didn’t actually buy lottery tickets for all 556 possible combinations, but he did compare them to all the Powerball numbers from November 1, 1997 until May 27, 2017, calculating what the winnings would be “if a degenerate gambler bought one Powerball ticket for every single one of the allegedly lucky number combinations over all 2,043 drawings.” In theory, it paid off.
According to Hickey’s research, if a lottery lover bought one ticket for each batch of numbers, including repeats, they would make $4.4 million from $4.2 million in ticket purchases. If they spent the same amount on “unlucky, randomized digits,” they would only make $1.7 million back.
In short, Hickey writes, “It would appear that the lucky numbers are legit lucky.”