You Have the Same Chance of Winning a Lottery Whether You Play Or Not

Fran Lebowitz? Herb Caen? Don Bleu? Rob Morse? Rebecca Blagrave? Liz Smith? William Deresiewicz?

Dear Quote Investigator: The probability that you will purchase a lottery ticket worth millions of dollars is miniscule. Here are two comically exaggerated quips based on this observation:

I figure your odds of winning the lottery are the same, whether you buy a ticket or whether you don’t.

I’ve done the calculation and your chances of winning the lottery are identical whether you play or not.

Commentator Fran Lebowitz has received credit for this saying. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI occurs in a video segment dated September 18, 1985 from the television show “Late Night with David Letterman” during which Fran Lebowitz spoke about gambling to the host Letterman. The segment is available via YouTube. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

We have a lottery here in New York. I feel you have the same chance of winning a lottery whether you play or not.

Currently, Lebowitz is the leading candidate for originator of this humorous observation. The statement’s phrasing is highly variable which makes it difficult to trace. QI has not independently verified the date of the video segment.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Interestingly, another person received credit for the saying in the October 4, 1985 column of famous San Francisco journalist Herb Caen: 2

Don Bleu, the KYUU discjock, figures that your chances of winning $2 million in the state lottery are about equal whether you buy a ticket or not. Keep cool and move slowly through the weekend.

On October 8, 1985 columnist Rob Morse of “The San Francisco Examiner” contradicted Caen and stated that Lebowitz employed the joke during an appearance on Letterman’s late-night television show. Morse spelled “Lebowitz” as “Liebowitz”: 3

Add this to your list of lines that were not originally spoken by a KYUU disc jockey. It was said by Fran Liebowitz on a recent David Letterman show: “I figure your odds of winning the lottery are the same, whether you buy a ticket or whether you don’t.”

On October 13, 1985 Caen responded, and he conceded that Fran Lebowitz probably deserved credit although he spelled her name as “Liebowitz”: 4

A few columns ago, I credited a local disc jockey with the crack that your chances of winning $2 million are about the same whether you buy a ticket or not. Several people tell me Fran Liebowitz originated the line, but I am not accusing the local fellow of plagiarism; however, I’ll concede the odds are not in his favor. Fran has a helluva batting average.

In September 1988 physical fitness advocate Rebecca Blagrave wrote a piece in “Vincennes Sun-Commercial” newspaper of Indiana. She used a version of the jest without attribution: 5

Each week, thousands of Hoosiers cross the state line to buy lottery tickets, knowing full well the chance of winning the lottery is about the same whether they buy a ticket or not.

In January 1989 science magazine “Omni” published the following instance as a filler item: 6

“I figure you have the same chance of winning the lottery whether you play or not.”
—Fran Lebowitz

A week later prominent gossip columnist Liz Smith repeated the information in “Omni” magazine: 7

“I figure you have the same chance of winning the lottery whether you play or not,” Fran Lebowitz told Omni.

In April 1989 the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” published an article about the Pennsylvania lottery’s $100 million dollar jackpot. The newspaper quoted Timothy Means of Penn Hills who decided not to buy a ticket: 8

“You stand the same chance of winning the lottery, whether you play or not,” he said as he waited in line at Somma Pizza in the food court at PPG Place.

In September 1989 a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario, Canada printed an anonymous instance: 9

So remote are the chances of winning a lottery million that there’s truth in the joke that’s making the rounds: “I figure you have the same chance of winning the lottery whether you buy a ticket or not!”

In 1997 “The Forbes Book of Business Quotations” included the following entry: 10

I figure you have the same chance of winning the lottery whether you play or not.
Fran Lebowitz

In 2006 a columnist in a Tucson, Arizona newspaper credited Lebowitz with another variant: 11

I agree with author Fran Lebowitz, who insightfully commented, “I’ve done the calculation and your chances of winning the lottery are identical whether you play or not.”

In 2020 cultural critic William Deresiewicz published “The Death of the Artist” about the precarious existence of many modern artists. He included another instance of the saying: 12

Of the two million artists on Spotify, less than 4 percent account for over 95 percent of streams. Of the roughly fifty million songs available, at last count, on the site, 20 percent have never been streamed, not even once. (Let that one sink in for a moment.) I’m reminded of something that the writer Fran Lebowitz has said: your chances of winning the lottery are the same whether you buy a ticket or not.

QI believes Fran Lebowitz should receive credit for this remark. She used it during an appearance on the television show “Late Night with David Letterman” in 1985. Variant phrasings have proliferated over time.

Image Notes: Public domain image of the painting titled “The State Lottery” by Vincent van Gogh circa 1882. The image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person who told QI about the instance in William Deresiewicz’s book. This led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. YouTube video, Title: Fran Lebowitz Collection on Letterman, 1980-2010, Uploaded on January 11, 2021, Uploaded by: Don Giller, Airdate of television episode: September 18, 1985, (Date is shown at 1 hour, 45 minutes, 18 seconds), (Quotation starts at 1 hour, 51 minutes, 50 seconds of 2 hours, 30 minutes, 44 seconds) (Accessed on youtube.com on April 29, 2021) link
  2. 1985 October 4, San Francisco Chronicle, Keep in Cool Dry Place by Herb Caen, Quote Page 45, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1985 October 8, The San Francisco Examiner, Me and my chateau by Rob Morse, Quote Page D1, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1985 October 13, San Francisco Chronicle, Section: Sunday Punch, Out Of My Mind by Herb Caen, Quote Page 1, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1988 September 4, Vincennes Sun-Commercial, Do you feel lucky in the automobile? by Rebecca Blagrave, (Knox County Coordinating Council on Physical Fitness), Quote Page 29, Column 1, Vincennes, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1989 January, OMNI, Volume 11, Number 4, Section: Continuum, (Filler item), Quote Page 35, Column 2, OMNI Publications, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1989 January 8, Daily News, Mere five Ferrari fans to get lucky by Liz Smith, Quote Page 10, Column 2, New York, New York. (ProQuest)
  8. 1989 April 26, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Buying frenzy swells pot by Barbara White Stack (Post-Gazette Staff Writer), Quote Page 1, Column 5, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest)
  9. 1989 September 22, The Whig-Standard, Lotteries: So Little for the Mind by Gerald Walton Paul, Quote Page 1, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. (ProQuest)
  10. 1997, The Forbes Book of Business Quotations: 14,173 Thoughts on the Business of Life, Edited by Ted Goodman, Topic: Chance, Quote Page 125, Column 2, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 2006 June 20, Arizona Daily Star, Guest Opinion: Willing to bet we can ax another scam — lotteries by Gilbert D. Shapiro, Quote Page A7, Column 5, Tucson, Arizona. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 2020, The Death of the Artist by William Deresiewicz, Chapter 4: The New Conditions, Unnumbered Page, Henry Holt and Company, New York. (Google Books Preview)