How to Win the Lottery

The drawing of lots to determine ownership and other rights has a long record in human history. It was used in ancient times to give away property and slaves, and it became common in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the United States, lotteries first came into use in 1612 to finance King James’s colony in Virginia. They later were used to raise money for towns, wars, public-works projects, and colleges. Many state governments have adopted lotteries to raise revenue without raising taxes or cutting services. The principal argument used to promote lotteries is that they provide a source of “painless” revenue, with players voluntarily spending their money for the benefit of the public good. This argument is particularly compelling in periods of fiscal stress, when politicians are under pressure to reduce tax rates or cut government programs.

The popularity of lottery games has grown dramatically since the mid-1970s, when innovations in game design and marketing changed the nature of the industry. Until then, most state lotteries were essentially traditional raffles, with people buying tickets to win a prize that would be drawn at some future date, often weeks or months away. The introduction of instant games, which offered smaller prizes and much better odds of winning (on the order of 1 in 4), helped draw new players.

Today, the lottery business is booming with millions of people playing the multi-state Mega Millions and Powerball games. These are often advertised with huge jackpot amounts, which attracts the attention of people who wouldn’t ordinarily play the lottery. And once they’re exposed to the possibility of winning, most people do purchase tickets.

Some people try to maximize their chances of winning by purchasing a large number of tickets. But that’s not a great strategy for a lot of the larger lottery drawings, like the Mega Millions and Powerball, where there are 300,000,000 possible combinations of numbers. “It’s not worth the cost of buying so many tickets if you’re just going to split the jackpot with all the other ticket holders,” Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman says. “You’re going to end up with less than you might have if you just bought one ticket.”

Other people try to increase their chances of winning by choosing numbers that are unlikely to be picked by others. This is called a “smart” play, and it can work well for smaller lottery draws where there aren’t as many tickets in the pool. For example, Harvard statistics professor Mark Lesser recommends picking numbers such as children’s birthdays or ages, or numbers that are rarely played.

Lottery revenues tend to expand rapidly after the lottery is introduced, then level off and sometimes decline. To counter this tendency, state lotteries continually introduce new games to keep up the excitement and interest of their customers. In fact, the growth of the lottery industry has been spurred by a continuing cycle of innovation, where the introduction of new games and the success of existing ones stimulate each other.