Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The utter futility of scratch card games online with the UK National Lottery

With an idle moment late last night I wondered how the National Lottery's online scratch card games work. So I decided to poke around and intercept the network connections and have a look. Doing so revealed the utter futility of spending any time on these.

It's not even like the regular lottery where the result is random. In the "Instant Win" games the outcome is entirely known the moment you click Buy and your interaction with the game makes no difference at all. As you interact with the game you are literally wasting your time (and money).

Here, for example, is the game Winning 7's which involves being presented with a board with 25 squares on it from which you choose 16. The more 7's you uncover the higher your prize.

The thing is, it doesn't matter what squares you uncover, the order in which you will uncover numbers is predetermined. You are not influencing the game at all. Here's why. In Firebug you can see the game downloading its state at the start:

And if you pretty print that XML you can see the amount that will be won, and the order in which the numbers will be revealed:
<?xml version='1.0' encoding='UTF-8' ?>
  <outcome prizeTier="14" amount="0.00"/>
  <params wT="0" />
  <turn n="8" wP="0" />
  <turn n="7" wP="0" />
  <turn n="5" wP="0" />
  <turn n="1" wP="0" />
  <turn n="3" wP="0" />
  <turn n="5" wP="0" />
  <turn n="2" wP="0" />
  <turn n="7" wP="0" />
  <turn n="5" wP="0" />
  <turn n="7" wP="0" />
  <turn n="9" wP="0" />
  <turn n="4" wP="0" />
  <turn n="5" wP="0" />
  <turn n="6" wP="0" />
  <turn n="7" wP="0" />
  <turn n="3" wP="0" />
On that go I was destined to receive £0.00 and have the numbers 8, 7, 5, 1, 3, 5, 2, 7, 5, 7, 9, 4, 5, 6, 7 revealed in that order no matter where I clicked. Imagine my surprise on my first click:

And a few clicks later:

The great advantage of this scheme is that it makes the game very secure. It doesn't matter what you do to hack the Flash applet or even modify that XML, the web site knows the correct outcome. When each game ends you end up going back to the same URL (there's no need for the Flash game to tell the web site what you won).

The same is true of every other game I looked at. And some take a long time to "play". Some even emulating shuffling or randomization.

In the end, it was soul destroying to think that people play these games. It's all a cruel trick. At least the lottery is clear: the chance of your numbers coming up is really, really, really small. Here there's the illusion that you are participating in some way.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.


OpenID mrclay said...

The scheme just saves HTTP requests. It could still be secure and be participatory if they kept the board server-side and checked each "scratch" with XHR. But yeah, it's a nasty trick to play on folks who are already just giving away their money on these things.

11:09 PM  
Blogger Robeam said...

This is no different to buying a scratch card over the counter. The result is always predetermined and the hope is that you will be dealt a winning card.

Playing the game is merely an obstacle to revealing the prize.

There has never been any amount of chance with scratch cards, you have winning cards and losing cards.

1:06 PM  
Blogger James said...

I'd be more surprised if it wasn't predetermined.

A scratch ticket is predetermined when you buy it offline too. The numbers don't appear as you scratch them, why would it work any other way online?

1:34 PM  
Blogger James said...

I'd be more surprised if it wasn't predetermined.

A scratch ticket is predetermined when you buy it offline too. The numbers don't appear as you scratch them, why would it work any other way online?

1:34 PM  
Blogger James said...

I'd be more surprised if it wasn't predetermined.

A scratch ticket is predetermined when you buy it offline too. The numbers don't appear as you scratch them, why would it work any other way online?

1:34 PM  
Blogger John H said...

@Robeam Surely with an over-the-counter card, you can buy a potential winning card, and lose.

For example, if there are 9 panels, you may scratch off 3, and you win if the ones you uncover are identical.

Clearly with a game like this, you could construct unwinnable cards, cards which are guaranteed wins, and cards which can be won or lost depending on the player's choice of panels.

I don't play scratch cards myself, so if the games they do don't fit with my description, feel free to correct me.

1:45 PM  
Blogger John H said...

Followup: After a discussion with my colleague, we've decided that probably over-the-counter scratch cards all have a predetermined outcome, as @Robeam says.

Rationale: otherwise, it wouldn't be that hard to cheat. You probably don't need to resort to an X-ray to peek; or you could scratch off all the panels then re-apply a metallic covering as needed.

1:54 PM  
Blogger dsf said...

Er, no, nothing is ever left unscratched/covered on a physical National Lottery scratchcard. You scratch everything off and discover whether you bought a winner or a loser; there is no game to it at all.

3:19 PM  
Blogger jason said...

A somewhat related (and very interesting) article on the security of scratch lotteries in North America:

6:22 PM  
OpenID NickFitz said...

They don't make any secret of the fact that the Instant Win outcome is determined at the point of purchase; it's even stated in their FAQs.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Kriek Jooste said...

Online bingo and a couple of other online gambling games like virtual horse racing, also works like this. The animations are just a bit of entertainment really. In the case of bingo it's still quite dull, hence why they run chat rooms to keep players engaged.

10:55 AM  
Blogger freeapplemac said...

A physical national lottery scratchcard is just as predetermined as an online scratchcard. There is zero chance involved once you have bought your scratchcard, except for the fact of it being a winning card or not. The actual GAME the scratchcard is based upon is totally meaningless in both, virtual and physical scratchcards, and they're only there to add a level of anticipation for the player. It would be exactly the same if both online and offline players flipped a coin to determine if their card was a winner or not.

Also, I want to point out that you have to scratch off every panel on EVERY scratchcard so there is absolutely zero difference in the outcome of the card depending on what you choose to scratch off.

I'm pretty sure that the ONLINE VIRTUAL scratchcards are a con all the same. Yes, you can win with them but I'd bet that all winnings are based upon a carefully constructed algorithm that makes sure that every player ALWAYS loses a percentage over a certain period or money spent playing.

With PHYSICAL real life scratchcards this doesn't happen. Theoretically, anyone could spontaneously spend £1 on a scratchcard and win a large cash prize. However unlikely this may be in reality, this scenario is still possible with physical scratchcards because the lottery have regulators who oversee the games and make sure that the winning cards are distributed randomly without anybody knowing where the jackpot cards will end up. Because of this, ANYONE can win regardless of how much that person spends on scratchcards.

(Obviously your CHANCES of winning a jackpot will increase with the more scratchcards you buy but mathematically speaking EVERYONE technically has the same long shot odds every time you buy one.)

An algorithm is the ONLY way they can produce an online gambling game such as this and just like real world fruit machines and even computer generated casino's (roulette etc) the algorithm that controls the prizes will ALWAYS make sure that the national lottery's income exceeds any prizes given out. The odds on all national lottery scratchcards are 1 in 4.9 so this means the national lottery will MAKE approximately £3.90 for every £4.90 that's spent. (the £1 difference is the amount of prizes they give out for every £4.90p spent.) They're making a KILLING with this scam.

One day I played for about an hour or so after adding £20 to my account and as I was looking out for patterns it didn't take me long to SUCCESSFULLY predict on numerous occasions what prize I would get on the NEXT scratchcard believe it or not.

As an example, if I won £7 on one game, I knew I would ALWAYS win £2 on the following game, then I would lose a game, then win another game etc etc etc.

One other point...
I contacted the national lottery myself a while ago asking for some specific information. I wanted to know how many LARGE cash prizes had been won with their online scratchcards. (over £500)
Of course I didn't want the details of any winners, just the information on prizes such as how much, name of game and the date. Unsurprisingly, they wouldn't provide this IMPORTANT information which every player should have a right to know so they can judge the fairness of the game.

My biggest concern now is if the national lottery have merged their online and offline scratchcard games because this would probably mean they will use their online scam to avoid having to secretly distribute jackpot winning cards within physical batches.

I would be sceptical with any game that's based around an algorithm. I would love to see an independent investigation into these online Lottery instant win games because I'm convinced they're robbing the public blind with them.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Graeme said...

You dont have to "Play" the game. you can have it set that as soon as you click buy the amount won (if any !!!!) is automatically revealed to you. IT has always been that the games prizes are predetermined. If fact I have managed to play two games with the identical code and therefore the same outcome - £10 each time ! It was a dice game and I "predicted" each roll correctly.

11:02 AM  
Blogger shameshameknowyourname said...

try the snakes and ladders, I can guarantee you wont reach the final panel with the jackpot, the roll will take you to a snake head one tile before it and you miss by a hairs breadth to tempt you back, I tried it after the lottery draw was unavailable, I had two goes and both with identical outcomes one tile short each time and no money won along the way, random algorithms my arse.
Safe to say I wont bother with that again, a flutter on the draw every roll over perhaps

10:40 PM  
Blogger Alfonso said...

I had the same "issue". I played hangman and Firefox crashed in the middle of the game. I thought I was going to lose my money but fortunately Firefox restore my session and I could continue playing. At the end I lost so before clicking in the "finish the game" button I killed Firefox using Windows task manager, then reopened Firefox, restore my session and started playing again from the beginning. To my surprise, no matter what, I always revealed the same letters in the same order even though I clicked on different squares so I decided to repeat the process of killing the browser and restore my session.

After 10 times the result was exactly the same: same letters, same order of appearance, even with my eyes closed I got the same result.

In conclusion, John is totally right, the result is predetermined and you'll never going to win more than 10 or 5 pounds in a game, so please do yourself a favour and don't waste your money playing on instant wins from the UK National Lottery.

5:14 PM  
Blogger freeapplemac said...

What I'd be interested to know but the National lottery won't comment on is if their Online scratchcards have a PRE-DETERMIND number of jackpot and top-tier prizes randomly programmed into every online game at the launch of each scratchcard.
Let me explain, if you buy a physical scratchcard in the real world you can check on the National lottery website how many jackpots and top-tier prizes are still unclaimed - meaning these prizes are still available to win.
However, with online cards, they don't appear to have any pre-determind number of jackpots of top-tier prizes so this means they could advertise 100k jackpot but never actually give this prize to anyone.

If the national lottery had nothing to hide they would publish how many online jackpots and top-tier prizes are still left to be won for each game, just like they do with their physical cards. This would PROVE that people can win big prizes with their online cards and the jackpots are real. Until they publish this data and until they have had their online games inspected by someone impartial, I would stay well clear of their online scam.

I would bet that nobody has ever won a scratchcard jackpot online before. I doubt they exist. If anyone from the national lottery is reading this, prove me wrong.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Scratchcards Queen said...

I would also to know if anyone has actually wont the National Lottery Scratch cards and believe that sites like these should be more open to the public in publishing the winners that there are. I do believe there are winners and its impossible to say with certainty there are not from a few sample games. As in all gambling the chances you win big jackpots are not great but scratch cards do have better odds than almost every other game there is. and small wins are plenty .

5:57 AM  
Blogger jnnifer kennedy said...

How can they get away with this it's fraud isn't it?

9:41 AM  
Blogger whodunnit said...

yes it is bullshit I put £20 in to test and I maxed out the full 70 games limit and I was back to my original £20 so I ended with the same amount after 70 Games! don't waste your money with these rubbbish.

12:11 AM  
Blogger whodunnit said...

yes it is bullshit I put £20 in to test and I maxed out the full 70 games limit and I was back to my original £20 so I ended with the same amount after 70 Games! don't waste your money with these rubbbish.

12:11 AM  
Blogger whodunnit said...

Hello I put £20 to test the theory and yep it's utter futility I managed to play the Maximum 70 games with my £20 and ended up at £16! after 70 games you have no chance don't waste your money.

12:12 AM  
Blogger Mark Crummett said...

Are you people all idiots? It's online gambling. Of course you usually lose money. The whole reason people play is in the hope they win a large amount. That's the entire point. you seem annoyed that they aren't all winning games? Its the same as scratch cards in stores. You pay, you hope its a winner.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Mark Crummett said...

The best thing is, i just played a £3 game after posting here and won £10 lol

1:52 PM  
Blogger Mark Crummett said...

and a year ago I won £1000 so :)

1:53 PM  
Blogger Lee Watson said...

You dont even need to scratch them you just need the barcode and get the desk to scan it

10:47 PM  
Blogger Lee Watson said...

You dont even need to scratch them you just need the barcode and get the desk to scan it

10:47 PM  
Blogger Louisew said...

And I won £100000 a couple of weeks ago on an online £1 scratchcard, so proof that it is not a con.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Louisew said...

A week ago, I won £100000 on a £1 scratchcard, so it is not a con. And you can also look on the lotto website to see how many are left

10:48 AM  

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