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Last Updated: April 29, 2016
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Lotteries have been a way of raising revenue for the government for a very long time. They have been used to raise money for special projects in China for over 2,000 years, including the Great Wall of China. Laws on lotteries vary significantly from state to state and country to country. In many places, they are the only legal form of gambling.
Although there are many ways to play the lottery and prizes have grown into the billions of dollars, they are still basically a 50/50 raffle. In other words, 50% of ticket sales to go some special project or government program and the other 50% is divided somehow among the winners.
There is too much to be said about lotteries to fit on one page. For now, this main lottery page is an index of resources on various lotteries and lottery games.
The lottery is pretty much a game of luck but there are some ways to improve your odds. Here is my general advice for all lotteries.
- Don't play: With very few exceptions, lotteries are an awful bet. The house edge on most games is about 50%. If you must play, try to do so in moderation.
- Choose the Quick Pick Option: If you play games based on choosing numbers, don't choose them yourself. Human beings are awful at picking random numbers. If you do, and you win the jackpot, chances are you will have a lot of other people to share it with, who picked the same numbers for the same reason you did. Your odds are much better letting the computer choose numbers randomly with the Quick Pick option.
- Play Scratch Cards: As a general rule, scratch cards offer a better value than games involving picking numbers. For bets of $1, scratch cards return about 60%, compared to 50% in number-picking games. As the bet amount increases, so does the expected return for scratch cards.
- Avoid Trademarked Games: Don't play any scratch card game with a trademarked name. As with slot machines, the owner of the trademark will usually get a piece of the pie, and it will come out of the player share, not the state's. It isn't a small share either, but about 6% of total ticket sales.
- Count Cards: For the same reason card counting works in blackjack, so does it with many scratch card games. Many lotteries publish the number of unclaimed tickets in their active games. For example, here is such a page for Mustache Money by the Texas Lottery. Your odds will be better if the percentage of unclaimed big wins is high compared to the same percentage of small wins. Compare games against each other and play the one where the remaining tickets are richest in big wins.
Please see my Powerball page for a lengthy analysis of that game. A Mega Millions page is on my "to do" list.
- Powerball calculator — Calculate for odds for the Powerball, or any lottery with five "white balls" and one "Power Ball."
- Mega Millions calculator — Calculate for odds for the Mega Millions, or any lottery with five "white balls" and one "Mega Ball."
- Pick Six calculator — Calculate for odds for any "pick six" game.
- SuperLotto Plus — California Lottery game.