The Odds of Winning a Lottery


A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn for prizes. Prizes may be anything from money to goods to cars. A lottery can also be a system for awarding jobs or other privileges. The odds of winning a lottery vary from game to game. The chance of winning a lottery depends on the number of tickets purchased and the amount of money put into the tickets. Some states prohibit the use of the mail for ticket sales and the transport of stakes, requiring that all transactions take place in person. However, smuggling and other violations of lottery rules are common.

Lotteries are ancient, attested to in the Bible and used to do everything from dividing land among Israel’s inhabitants to selecting a king of Rome (Nero was a huge fan). In early America, they were often tangled up with slavery—George Washington managed a lottery whose prizes included slaves, and one enslaved man bought his freedom through a Virginia lottery.

But Cohen’s story begins in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made from gambling collided with a crisis in state finances. With populations soaring, inflation roaring, and the cost of war spiralling, it became impossible for many states to balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services. The latter option would have been wildly unpopular with voters, so politicians turned to the lottery.

Initially, legalization advocates sold the idea that a lottery could fund most, or even all, of a state’s budget. But as the decade wore on, those figures proved to be unreliable. Instead, advocates began to focus on a single line item—usually education, but sometimes veterans’ benefits, public parks, or elder care. This way, they could argue that a vote in favor of the lottery was a vote for that specific government service, and a vote against it was a vote against the lottery itself.

The arithmetic is clear enough: a lottery generates more money for the state or sponsor than it costs to organize and promote it, so some percentage of the pool goes toward prizes. A percentage also goes to cover the cost of running the lottery and its marketing, and some is used for administrative expenses and profit. The remainder, if there is any, goes to the winners.

A number of stories abound of lottery winners blowing their windfalls on luxury cars and ostentatious homes. But there is an alternative: a careful application of math. Experts agree that choosing randomly generated numbers, rather than ones tied to birthdays or other personal data, increases your chances of winning. It’s also important to buy more tickets, as each additional ticket lowers the competition. Finally, don’t be afraid to venture into less-popular games—this will increase your chances of winning a smaller prize, but will still boost your overall odds.