The Odds of Winning the Lottery Aren’t As Bad As They Might Seem


A lottery is a form of gambling in which a prize is offered in return for payment of a consideration (either money or goods) for a chance to win. Its use in government, a practice dating to the thirteenth century, extends back at least as far as the Continental Congress, which sought to raise funds for the American Revolution with a lottery. Modern lotteries include commercial promotions in which goods or property are awarded by random selection, as well as the drawing of jurors and the allocation of military conscription slots.

In Cohen’s telling, the lottery became a popular form of gambling in America during the nineteen-sixties, when state governments faced budget crises and found it impossible to balance their books without raising taxes or cutting services. As a result, legalization advocates started to spin the lottery as a way of financing state operations without infuriating voters. They argued that, since people were going to gamble anyway, the state might as well collect the profits and spend them on the things citizens valued—education, elder care, public parks, and so on.

The more they talked about this, the more people wanted to play. In order to drive ticket sales and attract a wider audience, they began making jackpots seem bigger than ever—one-in-three million odds were suddenly one-in-three hundred million. Super-sized prizes also generate a huge windfall of free publicity when they appear on news sites and in TV spots.

And yet, the odds of winning aren’t as bad as they might seem. For example, a mathematician who won the lottery 14 times offers this tip: Don’t buy numbers that start with the same letters or end with the same digits. Instead, choose the ones that come up least often in previous draws. It’s a simple trick that, as he says, works 60-90% of the time.