The Odds of Winning the Lottery Are Not Your Side


The lottery is one of the world’s most popular gambling games. It raises billions of dollars a year, and attracts a large and committed player base that spends big chunks of their income on tickets. But lottery players’ odds are incredibly low, and the way the game works is not on their side.

In the past, lottery commissions used to spread a clear message: play the lottery, and you’ll be rich. Today, they hide this message behind an advertising campaign that emphasizes the experience of scratching a ticket and “having fun.” This coded language obscures the fact that the lottery is very regressive, and it’s poor people who are doing the heavy lifting for lottery commissions.

The earliest lottery-like activities date back thousands of years. The Old Testament mentions using lotteries to distribute land, and Roman emperors gave away slaves and property by lottery during Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries were even more common in the early American colonies, where they provided a painless alternative to taxes and helped fund such institutions as Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and William and Mary.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to lottery players—people who play $50, $100 a week and are convinced they can change their lives by buying a few tickets. Their irrational gambling behavior has surprised me most of all, not because they’re wrong or incompetent; it’s because they don’t understand how the odds work. The fact that their graphs show similar colors across rows and columns suggests that the odds of winning are not constant, but based on the probability of a particular application receiving its position.