The single biggest reason that lotteries work as well as they do is that people easily envision what they would do with a tremendous windfall of money. It is not just easy. It is enjoyable. You are doing it right now, and there is not even a prize number mentioned here.
In fact, exploring that daydream is really what you are paying for – the thought exercise, made a little more believable because you have tickets in your hand.
Because while people can readily grasp the scope of the cash prize, and the fantasies of partying, purchasing, or philanthropy that it would enable, almost no one can readily grasp the true odds of winning the thing.
This is not surprising. People are notoriously bad at using probability and estimating risks in their everyday lives, and those are usually around events with likelihoods of one part in hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands.
As gambling has spread, though, through casinos proliferating through the United States, the popularity of poker, and the coming explosion of legalized sports wagering in the US, people are becoming more accustomed to games of chance, and event frequency.
That should help to illustrate what lottery odds truly represent.
Let’s start by defining the odds we are trying to envision. As an example, the chances of winning a lottery that uses 49 balls and selects 6 balls is roughly one in 14 million.
What other events come close to those odds?
- Being dealt pocket aces three times in a row in a game of Hold ‘Em. That is actually shy of the odds. A better estimate is expressed as being dealt either pocket kings or pocket aces for four hands in a row.
- Craps “all or nothing at all bet” – 4 times in a row.
- Craps – The “all or nothing at all” bet is a maybe a bit obscure. So let’s look at the simplest bet there is at the table. One in 14 million is around 27 winning pass line bets in a row. The longest known craps run happened at the Borgata in 2009. That was 25 pass line winners in a row.
- Pick 12 out of 12 NFL games correctly against the spread on a Sunday. Then do it again the next week.
- Getting blackjack 5 hands in a row. And that is only about 4 million to 1 against. That is about 3 times more likely than winning the lottery.
- The odds of hitting the lottery are equivalent to your chances of seeing an MLB pitcher throw a perfect game, and in that same game have one of his teammates hit for the cycle.
Oh and Mega Millions? The odds of hitting that jackpot are 1 in 300 million. So any of these events described above are about 20 times more likely to happen.
Unlike the lottery, many of these are not events you could directly bet on. But some of them are.
You certainly could put in a 12 team parlay on an NFL Sunday. The payout for that means a significant edge for the house, but a 3000-1 payout is not bad in absolute terms (and as discussed, is far more likely than hitting the lottery).
You could also just pool money and keep pressing an 1-to-1 payout bet like a hand of blackjack. Table limits are on purpose designed to reach a limit on this at some point, but generally limits allow for a 100-times spread in bets. Meaning you could start with a $50 bet and if you hit 7 times in a row you hit the table limit. Would you and a few friends not be happy walking away with a $6,350 in winnings? Would you not have a hell of a story to tell for your $50 gamble if it even made 4 or 5 wins a row?
No, that is not likely to happen. But it is thousands of times more likely than hitting the lottery.
So why not pool your money and try that instead of buying lottery tickets?