How Odds Are You Going to Win the Lottery?

How Odds Are You Going to Win the Lottery?


The lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn to win money or goods. The first European lotteries appeared in the Low Countries in the 15th century, but they may date back even further. The word comes from the Middle Dutch loterie, which itself is likely a calque on the Middle French loterie (lotting) or, alternatively, it could be a diminutive of the Middle Dutch verb lottere, which means “to distribute by lots.” The lottery also can refer to the drawing of a set of tickets or applications for a specific prize, i.e., a sweepstakes.

Some economists believe that decision models based on expected value maximization can account for some lottery purchases. Others argue that risk-seeking behavior can explain these purchases, and still others say that more general utility functions defined on things other than lottery outcomes can account for these purchases.

Whatever the explanation, lottery sales are a big deal in the United States. People spent upward of $100 billion on tickets in 2021, making it the most popular form of gambling in the country. States promote their lottery games as ways to raise revenue. And while this revenue certainly does help state budgets, it’s debatable whether it’s worth the trade-offs to individuals who lose money in the process.

For many people, the biggest draw of the lottery is the chance to become rich. Billboards beckon with promises of millions or even billions of dollars, and it’s hard not to be lured in by those offers. But is it really possible to get rich through the lottery? And if so, what are the odds of winning?

The answer to the latter question depends on the type of lottery. The most common form of lottery involves picking numbers from a pool, but there are other types as well. The New York lottery, for example, awards prizes such as cash or valuable items like cars and homes. To determine the winners, the New York State Gaming Commission randomly selects applicants from a pool of eligible individuals who have met certain eligibility requirements and then assigns each applicant a number based on the order in which their application is received.

Those who wish to maximize their chances of winning should pick numbers that are not too popular. Richard Lustig, who wrote the book How to Win the Lottery — and has actually won seven times — recommends selecting numbers that are not in groups or sequences that hundreds of other people choose (like birthdays). He also says it’s important to research the history of numbers. He notes, for example, that the number 13 has been particularly unlucky for some people. The earliest lotteries were distributed during dinner parties in the Roman Empire, and the prizes were usually fancy items. These early lotteries, however, were more entertainment than anything else. Later, they became a popular way to finance government projects. The oldest running lottery, Staatsloterij of the Netherlands, was founded in 1726.