The Odds of Winning the Lottery


Whether playing for a new car or the dream home, lottery participants often go in clear-eyed about how odds work and know that, unless they win big, their chances are slim. But they still hope. For some, lotteries have become their last, best or only chance at a better life. They’ve adopted quote-unquote systems that are based on irrational gambling behavior—like buying tickets at lucky stores and times of day and picking numbers close to birthdays or ages—but they’re convinced it could be the turning point.

The word “lottery” probably derives from the Middle Dutch noun lot (“fate”), via a calque on the French noun loterie (the earliest records of lotteries in Europe are found in town records dating to the 15th century). The earliest state-sponsored lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with people purchasing tickets that would be drawn at some future date—usually weeks or months away. Lottery innovations in the 1970s brought a range of instant games, including scratch-off tickets, that offered lower prize amounts and shorter odds of winning.

Regardless of the type of lottery game you play, it’s important to avoid predictable patterns when choosing your numbers. Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman recommends sticking with random numbers instead of a sequence that has already been picked. And, if you’re buying Quick Picks, avoid numbers that are common or ending in similar digits; those choices increase your competition and decrease your chances of winning.