Let's start with the good news: You are about to win $500.
No, it's not 100 percent certain, but frankly, it looks pretty darn good. All you need to do is drive to New York, buy a lottery ticket and play the number 686. Hello 500 smackeroos! It's basically a lock and you want to know why? Well, Roy Siano is glad you asked.
"Double sixes are our best bet for the next issue," he says.
That would be the next issue of 3 + 4 Digit Lotto Stats, one of two biweekly publications owned, edited and published by Siano and his business partner for the past five years, Stephen Allensworth. Each issue of Lotto Stats and its sister magazine, Lotto News, purport to do what any mathematician will tell you cannot be done: teach you how to win the lottery.
For $2.95 per issue, you get 32 black-and-white pages stuffed with reams of data, dozens of charts and erudite-sounding advice from a handful of columnists, each offering strategies to gamble your way to Fat City courtesy of the New York lottery. Plenty of these columns come off as -- what's the polite phrase here? -- utterly cockamamie. One is based on astrology, another on interpreting dreams. Readers in a recent issue who saw a door in their REM sleep, for instance, were advised to play 271. Why? Unclear.
But that's the more fanciful stuff. Siano and Allensworth claim that solid logic undergirds the "hit frequency charts" and "pattern tables" crammed into their magazines. It boils down to this: If you flip a coin nine times and it keeps coming up heads, what should you bet will happen in the next flip?
"Tails, of course," says Siano, who at the moment is sitting at the dining room table in Allensworth's apartment in Port Chester, a suburb of New York near the Connecticut border.
"We use gambler's math," says Allensworth, who is sitting on the other side of the table. "What it does is track events. Sometimes numbers are out for a long time," which is to say, they fail to show up in winning combinations. "Generally speaking, after they've been out for a while, they tend to make up lost ground."
Of course, the world is filled with geeks who find this "logic" laughable. Oh, they'll tell you that no matter how many tails in a row you get from a coin, the odds are still 50-50 with each new flip. The misimpression that a head is more likely after a string of tails, these so-called experts will tell you, even has a name. It's called the gambler's fallacy.
"It's also called the 'lottery fallacy,' " says Derrick Niederman, co-author of "What the Numbers Say: A Field Guide to Mastering Our Numerical World." "The law of averages isn't compelled to make adjustments on a near-term basis. What look like patterns are actually just the effect of randomness."
The lure of the gambler's fallacy, Niederman notes, has led more than a few people to ruin. In 2004, in lottery-crazed Italy, the number 53 failed to pop in a two-digit game for 152 consecutive draws. The whole country was slowly gripped by 53 fever. Four deaths were blamed on 53-related wagering, including a woman who drowned herself and left a note confessing she'd frittered away her family's money playing 53. A man was arrested for beating his wife out of 53-related frustration. When the number was finally drawn in February of 2005, one newspaper ran a headline that said "No. 53 Puts Italy Out of its Lottery Agony." Phooey, retorts Siano. "Could we have survived for all these years if the information we're providing these players isn't helping?"
He's got a point, though exactly how many players and how much help is anyone's guess. Neither he nor Allensworth will discuss circulation numbers, aside from saying it's in the thousands, and that both publications are available at more than 7,000 places around the state. In New York, player guides to the lottery have come and gone over the years, Siano says. The only newsstand competition these days comes from an assortment of 60-cent mimeographs with names like Big Blue Daily, but these are mere wisps compared with either of the Lotto mags.
There are plans to expand. Results and reports about the lotteries in New Jersey and Florida are now sold online by Siano and Allensworth, and in the coming year they hope to market Web-based expertise about every lottery in the country. There's nothing quite like Lotto Hotline Inc., as the partners call their company. It is a mini empire built entirely on an idea that is demonstrably false.
"I sell about five copies every week," says Izzy Espinoza, owner of Tiendita on Worth, a bodega in Tribeca. "The people who read it love it and they come and get it every week. They all have their favorite columnists."
Do these readers win a lot?
Espinoza ponders that one a moment. "Not really."
By their own accounting, Siano and Allensworth coughed up $54,000 worth of winning numbers last year in News and Stats. Then again, they grudgingly admit, buying tickets for all those combinations would have cost you close to $51,000. Still, if those figures are accurate, these guys beat the odds in 2005. Which raises an obvious question: If they have deciphered the lottery, why coach instead of play?
"As soon as I play for myself, it doesn't work," says Allensworth, 61, who has a gray beard and looks like a philosophy professor. It's Allensworth's personal curse -- he can pick numbers like a champ, he says, but as soon as he plunks down money, forget it. His biggest winner ever is $500. He rarely buys a ticket anymore.
Siano, who is 53 and the bubblier of the two, hasn't fared much better.
"I've got to be honest with you," he says, with a trace of his native Bronx. "I think I'm behind a little bit, overall."
But this is America, buddy, and in this country you can earn a living as a guru for an art that you have not mastered and that, by any reasonable account of the facts, cannot be taught. Overhead for Hotline Inc. is low. It's a full-time job for Siano and Allensworth. They are the company's only employees. Columnists are paid sums the co-publishers describe as tiny. If just one copy of either Lotto magazine is sold in every location where it's available, Siano and Allensworth gross $21,000 each week, or more than $1 million a year. In short, these guys could be the first people in lottery history to hit the jackpot without hitting the jackpot.
"They give people information that people can use to win," says Gail Howard, who has been writing the Lottery Advantage column for Lotto News for years. She's on the phone in Las Vegas, where she lives. "I've seen a lot of these magazines over the years and they don't last. But these guys are still around."
Allensworth lives in a modest, cluttered one-bedroom apartment. Before you learn about the whole personal curse thing, you expect a mansion with a lagoon in the back and a Lamborghini in the driveway. But this is not the home of a rich man. Or if it is, Allensworth is hiding it well. There are rows of LPs and books on shelves, and in the foyer a couple of framed copies of front pages of the Daily News with pieces that he wrote. The tabloid is home to a column he writes called Mr. Lotto. ("All-even digit combos better odds for Win-4" read a recent headline.) It's a side gig and an excellent profile raiser, since the paper prints the name and number for Hotline Inc. plus a plug for the two Lotto magazines.
"I've got a two-foot commute," he says, giving a tour of the place. The computer where he edits and writes Lotto News is right next to his bed. It's basically a couple Macs and a printer. A divorced father of two, he lives with his girlfriend, Sharon North, who helps out by editing.
Siano and Allensworth were introduced by a mutual friend in the early '80s, when they were separately selling lottery-related publications. Siano had started his career in retail, managing stores for Sears and Staples. Fed up with the hours and riveted by the lottery drawings on television, he started writing Lotto Stats in his spare time. For extra cash, he wrote a column for Allensworth, who was then running an early incarnation of Lotto News, plus other non-lottery titles.
"At some point, we decided that the market was big enough for the two of us," Allensworth says, "and we teamed up."
Most of the columnists in Stats and News have been tapping away in the same space for more than a decade, and they all have an angle. Gail Howard pushes the power of positive thinking, advising in a recent piece that "Once your subconscious knows you are a winner, there will be no limits to what you are capable of accomplishing." Someone named John Galeoto crunches results on a month-to-month basis in a column called Cosmic Forcecast. ("In the Win 4 game, for the month of January, over the last 24 years, and/or 823 January drawings, there are still 36 no-match combos that have never been drawn.") There's Stan Rose, author of the weekly Rose Knows Numbers column, which last week recommended a totally incomprehensible guide to something called the "general overlapping trap." As he put it, and this is transcribed verbatim: "The general overlap trap entails creating three or more wheeling systems such that you three arrays around a set of numbers, without duplication."
The trouble is not finding writers of this caliber, says Allensworth. It's keeping them.
"They tend to die when they get hot," he says. It happens all too often. There was Monte Winn -- yes, a pseudonym -- who passed the week after all six of the winning numbers in the now-defunct Lotto 48 game appeared in a list of 10 numbers that he'd selected. "Nobody had ever done that before," Allensworth says, in a reverent hush.
And there was the sudden demise of Glen Colish. One night, he called from his hospital bed where he was being treated for a brain tumor, and announced that he'd cracked the code.
"He said, 'Steve, I got it figured out! I'm giving away Win 4s every night to the nurses. They're all getting rich!' I said, 'Well, how are you doing it?' He said, 'I'll tell you when I get out.' " The next day he was dead.
"Had I known, I would have kept him on the phone," says Allensworth, chortling. Siano is shaking his head and smiling. You get the sense these guys believe they were this close to solving the secret of the universe. There is something touchingly optimistic about it. Gambler's math might be a statistician's joke, but at Lotto Hotline Inc. it's as real as the laws of physics.
Which perhaps explains why this duo has succeeded where others have failed. Whatever else Siano and Allensworth are selling, it's the sunny certainty that there is Order out there, and we can't see it only because we aren't looking hard enough or in the right place. It's the human need for pattern, as old as gazing up into the night sky and devising elaborate and beautiful stories about warriors and princesses and bulls and scorpions. Life is not random, is the cheerful subtext of Lotto Stats and Lotto News. The universe is not chaos. It has a code, and that code is on sale for just $2.95.
This soothes the mind, of course, only if you believe it's true. Is it? Armed with nothing but cash, a copy of Lotto News and a simulacrum of faith, this reporter visited a Manhattan bodega called Good Luck Candy and Tobacco and conducted a test. Bets were made. Twenty-two dollars' worth of 50-cent and $1 bets, to be specific. Numbers from the Astrological Lottery column, numbers from a list of "triply-due numbers," from the Improve Your Odds column, numbers from the general overlapping trap devised by Stan Rose, dream numbers, horoscope numbers.
Thirty-eight bets in all.
Total winnings, come the next day: $0.
"You've got to understand that the book is a biweekly publication. Things change," said Siano, on the phone soon after. You can't expect to just pluck numbers out of it and win, he added.
"I would strongly suggest you play the double sixes -- 686, 066, 662," he urged, sounding undaunted. "I'm telling you, those numbers are due."
He was right. Kind of.
Last Friday, Siano called to say that 966 had just been drawn, and that he'd bet 50 cents on the number. "I won $250," he said, sounding vindicated.
"Now, I'd advise you to play the double 2s. They've been out a while."