The Odds Are Against You


The odds are long, but some people still feel like winning the lottery is their only shot at a better life. These gamblers may spend $80 billion a year on tickets, buying everything from a luxury home to a trip around the world or even to pay off credit-card debt. But, as a recent New York Times article explains, these people are likely to end up bankrupt within a few years. It’s important for lottery players to understand the odds and how the games work, but they often don’t. They fall for “quote-unquote” systems that aren’t based on scientific reasoning and make all sorts of irrational decisions about lucky numbers, stores to shop at, the best time of day to play and which types of tickets to buy. They also believe that if they buy more tickets, their chances of winning are higher.

It’s easy to see why the lottery has become such an addictive pastime. It’s a form of gambling that doesn’t require any skill and promises a prize so big it can’t be denied. But the odds of winning are not that great, and the truth is the vast majority of people who play the lottery are losing money. Despite this, the lottery continues to thrive because of the psychology of addiction and the fact that many people will continue to gamble as long as the jackpots are large enough to entice them to keep playing.

In the early days of the lottery, states that were short on revenue and long on social safety nets embraced it. Lotteries financed roads, canals, bridges, churches, schools, colleges, and other public projects. They were especially popular in early America, a nation that was both morally opposed to gambling and defined politically by an anti-tax ethos.

But by the late nineteen-seventies, when state governments began looking for ways to balance their budgets without upsetting an increasingly affluent and disillusioned population, this arrangement crumbled. In a world where job security and pensions eroded, health-care costs skyrocketed, and the promise that hard work would provide financial security for children to whom it was promised fell apart, the lottery became a popular alternative.

Since 1964, when New Hampshire approved the first state-run lottery, nearly every state has followed suit. The lottery’s appeal was boosted by big jackpots that drew attention on news sites and TV screens and made it possible for the games to advertise themselves, drawing in more and more paying participants. But to keep the jackpots growing to ever-larger, apparently newsworthy amounts, states have also had to make it harder to win. And with each jackpot, the chance of becoming a millionaire has become less and less realistic. As a result, lottery advocates began to shift their strategy. Instead of selling the lottery as a magic bullet that would float a state’s entire budget, they started to pitch it as a way to fund a single line item—usually education but occasionally elder care or public parks or aid for veterans.