The Odds Are Against You


The lottery is a game in which players pay to enter a draw for a prize (usually money) and hope their numbers match the ones chosen randomly by a machine. It’s a wildly popular pastime, contributing billions of dollars annually to state coffers. People play it for a range of reasons, from the pure entertainment value to the niggling sliver of hope that they’ll be one of the lucky few who make it big. But it’s important to remember that the odds are stacked heavily against you.

The word lottery probably comes from the Middle Dutch lotere, meaning “divided.” It was a common name for an agreement in which a piece of property was allocated to several people at once. The earliest European lotteries appeared in the 15th century, with towns attempting to raise funds for defense and poor relief. France’s Francis I encouraged the games, and they became widely popular.

Early America was also keen on the idea, though it was often used to fund municipal projects rather than public services. The founding fathers were fans, with Benjamin Franklin running a lottery to build Boston’s Faneuil Hall and John Hancock running one to help finance the Continental Congress’s revolutionary war efforts. George Washington tried to run a lottery in Virginia to help fund a road over a mountain pass, but it didn’t earn enough to make the project feasible.

In modern times, states are more eager than ever to exploit the lottery’s appeal. They offer the games to draw in new players, and they manipulate jackpots to ensure that the prizes grow to apparently newsworthy amounts. The strategy works: Super-sized jackpots drive ticket sales and generate a windfall of free publicity on news sites and in broadcasts.

Even so, the regressive nature of the lottery remains apparent. Lotteries cost taxpayers more than they pay out in prizes, and many of the winners can be expected to spend much of their winnings on gambling, a dangerous activity that is not suited to them.

Lottery commissions have been savvy about the psychology of addiction, and everything from their advertising campaigns to the math behind the tickets is designed to keep people playing. It’s a strategy not unlike that of tobacco companies or video-game makers, and one that isn’t particularly surprising in light of the fact that state budget crises in the late-twentieth century prompted many states to look for revenue sources that wouldn’t enrage their tax-averse constituents.

The best way to increase your chances of winning is to choose numbers that are less likely to be picked by other players, such as birthdays or ages. This will make it more difficult for other people to claim the same number, which is a requirement in most lotteries. In addition to increasing your own chances of winning, this method will enable you to share your wealth with others, which is not only the right thing from a moral perspective but will also be a joyful experience for everyone involved.