The Odds of Winning a Lottery


The lottery is a game in which people purchase tickets and the winners are selected by lot. It is a popular form of gambling and often used to raise money for various causes. It is also used to fill a position, such as on a sports team or in a job application, among equally competing applicants. The word “lottery” is probably derived from the Middle Dutch noun lot meaning “fateful chance,” although it may be a calque of the Dutch word loterie, which refers to a drawing or selection made by chance. The word has been in use for hundreds of years, and it has become a synonym for chance and fate.

In the post-World War II period, Cohen writes, a lottery became an attractive option for states with large social safety nets and that were facing declining tax revenues. The idea was that the money raised by a lottery would be enough to cover one line item of a state budget, invariably some kind of government service that was popular and nonpartisan—education, elder care, public parks, aid for veterans. This strategy was a way to avoid the more obvious argument that a lottery was just a new form of gambling.

Those who played the lottery often saw it as their civic duty to do so. This message was emphasized in ads that told people how much the lottery helped their community or the children of the participants, and in other advertisements that portrayed winning players as “heroes” or “good citizens.” The money that participants handed to retailers of the lottery is usually added to the prize pool for the next drawing, but this money is not always awarded.

The odds of winning a lottery are not only low, they have also gotten worse over time. The first New York Lottery, launched in 1978, offered one-in-three million odds; by the 1980s, the chances of winning a prize had dropped to one in thirty-five million. This was counterintuitive; presumably, the lower the odds of winning, the more people would play the lottery.

The reason for this is that, as the prize pools get bigger and bigger, the chances of winning get smaller and smaller. This, in turn, has led to a proliferation of small prizes, and, as the size of a jackpot grows, the number of entries increases, too. To compensate for this, the odds of winning have had to decrease even further. As a result, many people now consider the lottery to be a zero-sum game, in which everyone else loses and only the winner gets richer. But there are ways to make the lottery fairer and more unbiased. One is to ensure that the numbers are thoroughly mixed, either manually or mechanically—shaken or tossed—before they are drawn. Another is to use a computer program to generate random numbers, so that luck determines the selection. Neither of these methods is foolproof, but they do help to make the lottery appear more fair.