The Odds of Winning a Lottery Aren’t As Bad As You Think


If you’re one of the half of all Americans who buy a lottery ticket at least once a year—and most of the time, just once—you know that winning isn’t easy. But you probably also know that the odds of winning are disproportionately low for certain groups, including lower-income people, minorities and women. And, even if you play your “lucky” numbers consistently, such as the dates of birthdays and anniversaries, you may not be doing much to increase your chances of success.

Lotteries began with a pretty simple premise: That, if you were going to gamble anyway, why not let the state pocket the profits? This argument had its limits, of course, but it gave moral cover to those who approved of gambling for other reasons. For instance, in the immediate post-World War II period, many white voters supported legalization of the lottery because they thought that it would attract black numbers players and thereby help foot the bill for services that they didn’t want to pay for themselves, like better schools in urban areas.

It took some time for lottery advocates to realize that the truth was a little more complicated than they’d hoped, and once they did, their campaigns shifted gears. Instead of trying to sell the idea that a lottery could float most of a state’s budget, they began arguing that it would fund only a single line item, usually a popular nonpartisan service like education or elder care. This way, a vote in favor of the lottery was not a vote against gambling but, rather, a vote to support veterans or children’s health.

In addition to these more socially desirable uses, lotteries are still a popular form of entertainment. In fact, the history of lotteries is a long and varied one, spanning the Roman Empire (Nero was quite fond of them) and the Bible, where casting lots was used to decide everything from who got to keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion to the winner of a game of chance at a party.

Among the first recorded instances of a lottery that offered tickets in exchange for a prize was a system in the Low Countries that raised funds to build town fortifications and to help the poor. By the fourteen-hundreds, the practice was common in England, too.

In modern times, a lottery is most often used to raise money for a specific purpose, such as the construction of roads or public buildings. Most large-scale lotteries offer a single big prize and many smaller ones, with the total value of prizes equaling the amount of money left over after expenses, such as those for advertising and taxes, are deducted from the pool. Typically, the prizes are paid out in cash, though in some cases, other goods or services may be awarded. Occasionally, prizes are even given away without any compensation at all. For example, the United States Air Force once offered a prize of a free trip to Hawaii.