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Five Thirty-Eight crunched the data and found out how much money you could win playing the lottery with fortune cookie numbers.

Elisabeth Sherman
August 07, 2017

Fortune cookies are now such a quintessential part of Chinese-American restaurants that they’re one of the most anticipated parts of the meal. Cracking open that shell and pulling out the slim piece of paper folded up inside is like breaking into a vault filled with secret treasures. Sure, most people know better than to believe the vague line predicting your future (how many times have you read “you will someday be successful”?) but there’s an allure to taking the positive message to heart, especially on a full stomach.

One fortune cookie obsessive named Walt Hickey over at Five Thirty-Eight unraveled some of the mystery behind the iconic after-dinner treat. Hickey ordered 1,050 fortune cookies (though he only received 1,035) and sorted through every single one, reading and cataloging each fortune he unwrapped. Hickey found that there were only 676 unique fortunes, 556 unique combinations of lucky numbers, and 173 Mandarin phrases, among the 1,035 cookies.

Hickey then took his research a step further: He wanted to find out if there are any numbers combinations that are luckier than others, so he compared all the lucky number combinations in the fortunes to Powerball numbers from November 1, 1997 to May 27, 2017. He then calculated what the winnings would be if a gambler played “every possible combination of the fortune cookie ‘lucky number.’" And what guess what? Hickey found that those numbers are actually lucky. Yes, you read that right.

If a person bought, “one ticket for each batch of numbers, including repeats,” he or she would make $4.4 million after spending $4.2 million dollars in ticket purchases. If the same person bought tickets based random numbers, he or she would only earn $1.7 million in winnings (assuming a jackpot of $140 million after spending the same amount.

Obviously, Hickey stumbled on a strange coincidence, and he accounts for it by speculating that the numbers were added to cookies after the Powerball drawings. He also notes you could “play several thousand lotteries with several thousand combinations, and you’ll hit a winner eventually.”

As for the Mandarin phrases he found on some of the fortunes? 74 of the words pertained to food, so if you give yourself a quick language lesson using just the vocabulary found in fortune cookies, you’d probably have the most success striking up a conversation in a restaurant.

More than half of the fortunes Hickey read mentioned “you,” and he found that the themes included happiness, friendship, work, and love. After categorizing each fortune, he made a bot that would "[smash] them together and [create] brand-new tokens of wisdom.” The results are predictably hilarious and at times, incomprehensible.

Hickey’s experiment surfaced some intriguing questions about the nature of those fortune cookies. Have we been needlessly ignoring these messages, tossing them in the garbage bin when we should have been paying attention to whatever wisdom they had to offer? We might have at least made a couple bucks playing the lotto.