How the Odds Work


When you buy a lottery ticket, you are purchasing a small sliver of hope that you will be the winner. But you can’t win unless you get the numbers right, and there are a lot of ways to go wrong. In fact, if you want to improve your chances of winning the lottery, you should learn as much as you can about how the odds work.

While making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has an ancient record (as exemplified in the Old Testament where Moses was instructed to take a census of the people and divide the land by lottery), public lotteries based on the distribution of prizes for material gain are rather newer, dating back only a few centuries. The first public lotteries in Europe were held in the 15th century by towns seeking money for fortifications and to aid the poor.

Lottery promotion is usually heavily focused on ad campaigns that are designed to persuade people to spend their hard-earned dollars on tickets. The message coded in these advertisements is that the lottery is a wacky and weird game that’s fun to play. But in fact, the lottery is a regressive form of gambling that tends to disproportionately affect lower-income households. In addition, research shows that lottery play declines with increasing formal education.

The lottery, once established, creates a broad constituency of supporters that includes convenience store operators (who sell the tickets); lotteries suppliers (heavy contributions by these companies to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and, of course, legislators (who quickly grow accustomed to extra cash).

Although lottery promoters like to argue that they operate their games as businesses with a focus on maximizing revenue, this is essentially an unspoken admission that their business model puts them at cross-purposes with the larger public interest. By running their lotteries as businesses, they are creating a gambling industry that promotes gambling addiction and undermines efforts to treat problem gambling.

There are a number of other serious problems with the way state lotteries are run as businesses, such as how they skew their data to obscure negative effects on the poor and minorities, and how they encourage problem gambling and inequalities by promoting the lottery through skewed advertising. And, most importantly, by running their lotteries as businesses, they have created a dependency on gambling revenues that is at best at cross-purposes with the broader public welfare. This arrangement, even if well-intentioned, is unsustainable and should be abolished. The alternative is to make lottery funds available for public purposes, preferably through an appropriation from the general fund. This would ensure that lottery proceeds are used for the highest priority needs of the community and minimize the harms that result from the reliance on gambling for revenue. This would require reforms to state constitutions and laws governing gambling. It would also require more scrutiny of the underlying costs of the lotteries, which are often hidden from view by a misleading accounting system that masks the true cost of operating these enterprises.

Posted in: Gambling