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Beating Lotteries at Their Own Game


In the world today, there are few forms of gambling as popular as lotteries. The origins of gambling stretch back quite a ways. In the Bible, “lots” were cast to divide up land. The “casting of lots” more or less means “to take a chance,” lottoand this seems to be where the concept of lotteries originated from.

When Nero burned Rome in pre-Christian times, a lottery was used to raise the funds necessary for rebuilding the city. Since then, we haven’t looked back! Lotteries today are an extremely popular way of raising funds for public projects and adding to government coffers. In the U.S., lotteries are legal in almost all states and generate hundreds of billions of annual revenue.

In Lotteries, the player’s objective is to pick the winning combination of numbers that are to be selected from a larger group of numbers. Your odds of winning (or chance of winning) depend upon the size of the larger group of numbers. The bigger the group (or, “pool”), the greater the odds are against you winning the jackpot. In most states, there are a variety of lotteries, each with different number pools and, consequently, different odds on hitting the big one.

Usually, the biggest lottery game in a state is called the lotto. The lotto is where the big winners usually come from, and lotto have been responsible for making many instant millionaires. The lotto usually has a progressive jackpot. This means that each week the jackpot is not won, it rolls over into the next week and increases in size as more tickets are bought. To play, you simply choose a series of numbers (in most lotto you select between 6 and 10 numbers) and go to your nearest lotto ticket outlet (gas stations, 7-11, Circle K etc. Some states have automated self-serve machines as well) and write your numbers on the provided slip of paper. Give it to the attendant (or punch in your numbers if you’re using a self-serve machine) and double-check your numbers when you get your ticket; what a horrible feeling it would be to win the jackpot on your originally selected numbers only to see that the attendant screwed up and entered a wrong number! Each lottery ticket costs from 50 cents to $1.00, depending on the state in which you play. There’s usually one lotto game played per week and if no one holds the winning ticket that matches all of the numbers selected, the jackpot rolls over into the next game.


moneybagThe big jackpot in lotto games are what is known as pari-mutuel systems. That means that, like your winning payoff at a horse race, you never really know how much you will win until everyone has purchased their tickets and the game is closed. During the days leading up to a lottery drawing, the jackpot figure increases as more and more players purchase tickets. After the game is closed and the money collected from ticket sales has been counted, the state deducts the cost of conducting the game and any portion of lottery sales that have been reserved for funding public projects. The money that remains in the lottery pool is used to pay off all winning ticket holders for that lottery drawing.

In the California lotto, for example, players must match 6 out of 6 numbers to win the big multi-million dollar jackpot. If you matched 5 out of 6 numbers, you’d still win a prize, but it would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range rather than in the millions. The winners that get four or five numbers get awarded prizes in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, based upon the how many tickets were originally sold. The only prize amount that is pre-determined before the closing of the game is the $5 you win for matching 3 out of 6 numbers.

In each of the top prize categories: matching 6 out of 6, 5 out of 6, or 4 out of 6 numbers, more than one player can (and often does) win. When this happens, the total prize money for that category is split among all of the winning ticket holders. For example, if three individuals matched 6 out of 6 numbers on their winning tickets for a $9 million jackpot, the prize would be split three ways and each winner would receive $3 million.

A Lotto Luck!

horseshoeAs I just mentioned, because lottery jackpots are pari-mutuel, if there is more than one winning lottery ticket in any drawing, the jackpot is split equally among the winning ticket holders. As a result, many lucky winners have had the misfortune of sharing their winnings with total strangers!

The reason this happens has to do more with the popularity of the numbers people tend to select than with destiny, fate, or anything else. For example, many people like to choose their birthday, or their loved one’s birthday, or the day they got their first car, and so on… What all of these numbers have in common is that, as days, they are based on a number group of 1 to 31 (or 30, 29, or 28, depending upon the month). Other popular numbers are 7 and 11 (simply because they are considered lucky) and sequential numbers like 5-10-15-20-25-30 or 1-2-3-4-5-6.floridalottotick

The best way to ensure your own private winner is to make sure that at least some of your numbers fall outside the range of 1 to 31, pick them randomly, and don’t use a logical numerical sequence that someone else might easily think of. If you don’t want to share your jackpot with anyone, pick those numbers carefully!

Bonus Plays

Let’s be honest, the reason we’re playing the lotto is to win money! So if a a lotto game offers bonus numbers or other ways (usually inexpensive) to win; then by all means take them! These little “gimmes” stretch your lotto dollar, and keep you in the game longer. Using the California example again, if you buy five SuperLotto tickets you get a free bonus ticket. This bonus play ticket has seven numbers instead of the normal six, and if you match six or seven numbers you get $200 000! Not the biggest jackpot in the world, but you can’t beat it for a free ticket! Moving north, the Power Play option available in Oregon quadruples your odds to win when you hit 3, 4, or 5 out of 6 numbers in any drawing. It costs twice as much to play the power play, but the larger payout makes the bonus worth paying for it.


State lottery commissions are just like casinos in that they are always coming up with new gimmicks and promotions to get you to play with them instead of the competition. If you keep a sharp lookout, chances are you’ll up your odds of winning if you take advantage of these little promos.

State Differences

lottodudeMost people aren’t aware that different states offer vastly different games, and you can often find some real bargains in neighboring states. A word of caution first though… don’t ask a friend in another state to buy tickets for you and send them in the mail. It is a federal offense to mail lottery tickets across state lines, however you ARE allowed to go to the other state yourself and buy the tickets. You do not have to be in the state to win.

For example, in California’s SuperLotto, players pick 6 out of 51 numbers and the odds against them are 18 million to 1. In neighboring Oregon, players pick 6 out of 54 numbers, which gives them odds of 26 million to 1.

On the surface, it looks like folks from Oregon would be better visiting the Sunshine State to purchase the California SuperLotto tickets. But if you do your research, you’ll find out that a ticket in Oregon only costs 50 cents, which reduces their odds to 13 million to 1 for the same dollar. (N.B. You should also consider how big each state’s jackpot is before deciding which one to play).

Most states offer you subscription services that let you buy a year’s worth of tickets at a time in advance. You don’t have to live in the state or be there to win, you just need to be in the state to buy the subscription.


The odds for each state’s lotto games are usually posted in their marketing material. If you know how much a ticket costs, you can compare your odds in different states and pinpoint the state closest to you that offers the best chances of winning.


States also have a way of changing the rules and the size of their number pools every so often, so your best bet is to keep track of the games played in neighboring states and compare the odds and relatives size of the jackpots once or twice per year.

Odds for lotto games and other instant and pick games vary greatly. Make sure you investigate the odds of a new game before you play it.

Daily Games

Many states also operate “daily cash” games that don’t offer very big jackpots, but they do give you a better shot at winning and the promise that your winnings will come to you in one lump sum. Daily cash games include smaller versions of the regular lottery in which players pick fewer numbers from a smaller pool.

In addition, many states offer “pick” games, which are daily cash games in which you pick only three or four numbers. No matter what state you play in, pick games always give you the same odds because you’re selecting from the same size number pool. In Pick 3, the number pool ranges from 000 to 999. Because you are actually picking one number rather than three separate numbers, (that is, 529 rather than 5-2-9) your odds are 1 in 1,000. in Pick 4, the number pool is from 0,000 to 9,999, and your odds of picking the winning number are 1 in 10,000.

Most pick games cost either 50 cents are $1 to play. You can often increase your chances to win a pick game without spending more money by boxing your bet. Boxing a bet means that you are going to treat each digit in your number selection as a separate number (that is, 5-2-9, rather than 529). When you box a bet, as long as you have picked the winning digits, it doesn’t matter what order they’re in. If, for example, you boxed 5-2-9 and 295 came up, you’d win. But because boxing a three-digit number gives you six chances on the same ticket, the prize you win is one-sixth of what you would win by picking just one winning number. Bosing a four-digit number gives you 24 chances on the same ticket, and you are shooting for a prize that is 1/24 of what you would win by picking just one number.

As the name implies, a scratch-off lottery ticket is a lottery ticket coated with latex that you scratch off to reveal a prize- or lack thereof. (I once received 40 scratch tickets for my birthday and got nothing more than a dirty fingernail, a year older, and a little wiser). But, all-in-all, scratch tickets do provide some of the best odds of winning a lottery prize, depending on the game. In fact, some states set their scratch-off odds as low as 1 in 3 or 4. One of the best prizes you can win with a scratch ticket is a shot at your state’s bigger lottery or an appearance in a TV lottery game. Even though I lost 40 scratch tickets in a row, I still play once in a while and anxiously await the opportunity to win California’s Big Spin, although I now use a coin to scratch!


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