The Odds of Winning the Lottery


When you talk to people who play lotteries, there’s a sense that they go in clear-eyed about the odds and how the games work. They may have quotes-unquote “systems” that are totally irrational, about lucky numbers or stores or times of day to buy tickets, but they know the odds are long and that if they don’t win, well, someone else will. And they’re okay with that, because they feel as if the lottery is their last, best, or only chance at a new life.

But the truth is that lottery money doesn’t just come from ticket sales, it also comes from a portion that goes to marketing and profits for the state or corporation running the game. This leaves a small pool of cash for the prizes, and a decision must be made about whether to offer a few large prizes or many smaller ones.

In the United States, lottery proceeds have been used to fund a variety of public projects, from bridges to hospitals. In the immediate post-World War II period, some states used them to expand social safety nets without imposing particularly onerous taxes on the middle class or working classes.

In fact, if the lottery was run fairly — and that’s a big if — it would be possible to create a system in which the chances of winning were evenly distributed between players, because a subset of the larger population set — say 25 employees from 250 — is chosen at random. As a result, each person in that subset has the same chance of being selected as any other member of the group.