The Odds of Winning the Lottery – The Law of Large Numbers


The practice of making decisions or determining fates by lot has a long record in human history, including the biblical instruction that Moses should take a census and divide the land among his people by lottery. The first lotteries to distribute money as prizes are documented in the Low Countries in the 15th century, when towns held them to raise funds for municipal works and to help the poor.

State officials rely on a similar message in their advertising: That playing the lottery is a civic duty and a way to contribute to a greater good. It’s a message that is at cross-purposes with the lottery’s true function, which is to provide painless revenue to state governments.

To keep ticket sales robust, lotteries must pay out a substantial percentage of their sales in prize money, which reduces the proportion available to state governments to spend on public goods like education. Yet unlike a normal tax, lottery revenues are not transparent to consumers, who may not realize that they are paying an implicit state sales tax on their tickets.

Another problem is that lotteries promote a myth of good luck. The truth is that the odds of winning are extremely bad. The best way to improve your chances is not by buying more tickets but by understanding and using proven lottery strategies. But to understand the real odds, you must know the law of large numbers. It is this law that shows us why some people have so much success at winning big jackpots.