The Odds of Lottery Gambling


Lotteries are a way for state governments to raise money for projects without raising taxes. They also provide a convenient way to finance the same programs that citizens might otherwise vote against, like new schools or welfare benefits for the poor. And, if they are run well, they can be attractive to voters, because they promise to bring in big prizes, even for small investments.

In theory, lottery revenues should not be viewed as an ethical problem, since they depend entirely on chance. But, the people running lotteries are not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction, leveraging ad campaigns, ticket designs, and math to keep players coming back for more. This is not a problem exclusive to lottery companies, of course: it is the strategy of many other industries as well, from tobacco to video games.

It is easy to demonize lottery players, assuming that they don’t understand the odds and that they spend $50 or $100 a week on tickets out of some deep-seated need for money. But, I’ve talked to a lot of lottery players who go in clear-eyed about the odds and explain that they play because they enjoy the game. They often tell me about the quote-unquote systems that they have, about lucky numbers and lucky stores and what types of tickets to buy, but they also understand that the odds are long.

The first records of lotteries offering tickets for a prize in the form of cash appear in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, when towns used them to raise money for town fortifications and for the poor. The early seventeenth century saw a major expansion in the number of states that legalized them, as legislatures struggled to balance budgets and maintain existing services without instituting taxes.

Advocates of state-run lotteries argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well pocket the profits. This argument had its limits—by the same logic, governments should sell heroin, too—but it gave moral cover to people who approved of lotteries for other reasons.

For politicians struggling to justify tax increases, lotteries were a budgetary miracle: they could collect billions, seemingly out of thin air, and avoid punishment at the polls. This was particularly true in the late twentieth century, when many white voters supported state-run lotteries on the assumption that they would primarily draw black numbers and fund services that they didn’t want to pay for, like more school money in urban areas they had recently fled.

When playing the lottery, try to cover a large range of numbers. Avoid numbers that end with the same digit or are adjacent to each other on the chart. Also, don’t choose a number that is the same as the winning number from the last drawing. You can increase your chances of winning by joining a syndicate. This means that you can purchase more tickets and thus boost your odds of winning.