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Why it's not so crazy to play those fortune cookie lucky numbers in the lottery

The statisticians at FiveThirtyEight crunched the numbers on 1,035 sets of fortune cookie numbers and the results might surprise you.
/ Source: TODAY

When you get a fortune cookie after enjoying some Chinese food, you're probably happy just to have a small sweet treat. But what do you do with that little slip of paper tucked inside? Do you immediately toss it aside, make a few jokes about the predictions...or tuck it into your pocket so you can play those lucky numbers in the lottery later?

The logical part of our brain knows that those random numbers can't actually bring us any real luck...or can they? Walt Hickey, the chief culture writer at the statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight, says he knew that he shouldn't take those digits seriously, "but breaking open a cookie and attempting to find a higher truth is an inexplicably satisfying way to end a takeout meal."

In an attempt to "unlock their mysteries," Hickey decided to crunch the numbers on more than 1,000 fortune cookies. And his results may surprise you. Within that batch, Hickey found 556 unique combinations of numbers. He then compared the "lucky" numbers inside the cookies and a control set of "unlucky" randomized numbers against nearly 20 years of Powerball numbers.

And, guess what? "It would appear that the lucky numbers are legit lucky," Hickey concluded.

How lucky? Playing the "lucky" numbers, according to the statistician, an imaginary gambler would make $4.4 million on $4.2 million in ticket purchases, while playing the "unlucky" numbers would yield just $1.7 on that $4.2 million in ticket purchases. In other words, with a set of fortune cookie numbers, you'd make about $172,000, but playing the "unlucky" numbers, would result in a loss of a couple million dollars (though hopefully you'd stop playing the darn lottery before you were several million in the hole).

"Obviously, this is weird as hell," notes Hickey. So how is it possible? Hickey cites several possible logical explanations, including that the lucky numbers could have been added after the Powerball drawings. "Or, according to Occam’s razor, play several thousand lotteries with several thousand combinations, and you’ll hit a winner eventually," he adds.

In the end, Hickey won't go so far as to calling the fortune cookie numbers lucky, but, he says, "I’m pretty confident we can’t claim the numbers are unlucky." That's enough incentive for us to head down to our favorite Chinese restaurant, pick up a few cookies and play those lucky numbers — at the very least, we'll get a tasty meal.

Even before Hickey's analysis, many have reportedly been trying this strategy for some time, occasionally with impressive results...

In addition to analyzing the lucky numbers, Hickey also assessed the sayings in the fortunes and found that the subject of most of them is "you."

But the burning question we had was what the heck did Hickey and his colleagues do with all of those fortune cookies after opening them? "I personally ate a horrifying amount of them," says Hickey. "The video team snacked a bit. The remaining nine hundred plus cookies were made available to the office, however went essentially untouched because, you know, who wants to eat an industrial amount of fortune cookies with no fortunes at six in the evening."

Despite the impressive data, Hickey tells TODAY he hasn't been stockpiling on fortune cookies as a rainy day strategy. "I have been going to Chinese restaurants as often as I had been going before, which is to say, 'with alarming regularity — I really should cook more."