The Odds of Winning the Lottery

In the last decade, eye-popping jackpots have made lottery playing more popular than ever. But how often do we think about what it takes to win? And how do we know what our odds really are? Read on to find out more about this fascinating game, including its history and how you can improve your chances of winning.

The idea of casting lots to determine decisions and fates has a long, rich record in human history—including a few instances in the Bible. But the modern practice of selling tickets to win a prize, known as a lottery, began in Europe in the 15th century and was largely adopted by the 17th. Lotteries have proven remarkably popular in the United States and around the world, where they are usually run by state governments.

Typically, a state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a public corporation to run it; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then tries to maintain or increase revenues through innovation. Before the 1970s, state lotteries were almost like traditional raffles: People bought tickets that would be drawn at some unspecified date, weeks or even months in the future. But the introduction of instant games, such as scratch-offs, changed all that. These newer lottery products offered lower prize amounts in the 10s or 100s of dollars, with much higher odds, on the order of 1 in 4. Suddenly it became much more lucrative to buy a ticket.

Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia operate lotteries. The six that don’t, Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah and Nevada, allow gambling through casinos or other private enterprises and don’t want a competing lottery to cut into their profits; or they have religious objections.

Although the odds of winning a big prize are much less than they were 10 years ago, the fanciful dream persists. That’s mainly because humans have a difficult time understanding risk when the stakes are so high. “Human beings just have a very, very difficult time developing an intuitive sense of how likely things are,” economist Victor Matheson, an expert on lottery behavior, tells NPR.

Nevertheless, many people who have won huge prizes have learned to manage their wealth wisely and responsibly. They consult with financial advisors and legal professionals to understand the tax implications of their wins. They secure their winnings in a safe place and make plans for the future. And they learn how to develop a strategy for playing the lottery that can lead to life-changing results. NerdWallet writer Chris Chartier shares his lottery-winning tips in his article, How I Won 7 Grand Prizes in 8 Years.