Mathematician Breaks Down the Best Ways to Win the Lottery (2024)

[Narrator] The lottery is obviously pretty hard to win,

but of course, we had to test it ourselves,

so we got a few Wired colleagues to play a scratcher game.

I didn't win anything.

I did not win anything.


I got nothing. I lost.

But I didn't. Nothing.

I have won $5, so I'm up by $2.

[sad trombone music]

[Narrator] Scratchers are just one

of the many lottery games out there.

Beyond that, you have draw games

at both the state and national level, and

in particular, the Powerball,

which keeps on making the news

because the jackpots are so big.

There are definitely lotteries that are easier

to win than other lotteries.

When you gamble normally,

a bigger chance of winning means lower payout.

So, for example, this is familiar from roulette where,

if you bet on red or black, you get less money in return

than if you bet on a single number where you get a lot more

in return because your odds of winning

with red or black bet is much higher.

Similarly, your odds of winning

on a Powerball or Mega Millions ticket are very low,

about one in 300,000,000.

[Narrator] Let's look at that one more time.

Your chances of winning the Powerball Jackpot equal

about one in 300,000,000.

There are all kinds of lottery prizes out there

and some of them are still pretty big,

but they're not $1,000,000,000.

[Narrator] Next, playing certain numbers.

Well, you're not gonna increase your chances

of winning by some strategy

about how you pick the exact numbers that you pick.

However, for games like Powerball and Mega Millions,

what you'd like to do, if you win the jackpot,

is to be the only one who wins the jackpot

so you don't split it.

So, with that perspective in mind,

you'd like to pick unpopular numbers.

You'd like to pick numbers that other people will pick.

Don't pick dates, for example,

because a lot of people gamble based on dates.

Other advice might be, if you look

at the ticket where you pick your numbers,

don't just pick a column of numbers on that ticket,

for example, because some people will do that.

[Narrator] Repeat winners, like Richard Lustig, won

over $1,000,000, advocated for playing sequential numbers.

Now, this won't increase your odds of winning.

That kind of thing is gonna give you the same chance

of winning the jackpot as any other method of choosing.

However, if you look at a ticket like that, it looks weird.

So many sequential numbers help you not share

the jackpot, which is good.

I don't know, but that's

how it strikes me as a mathematician.

[Narrator] So, what are some ways that people attempt

to increase their odds of winning the lottery?

First, playing every single number combination

in the drawing.

So, for Mega Millions and Powerball,

that's not really a feasible choice

'cause there's 300,000,000 tickets.

It's super hard to go

to the store and buy that many tickets.

You need a whole army of helpers.

It's a complicated endeavor,

but for smaller state level lotteries,

which have fewer tickets that you have to buy,

and also a smaller jackpot, people have done that.

So, in particular, in New South Wales

in 1986, a syndicate did that in Virginia in 1992,

and then with the Irish National Lottery.

Now, in these cases, they didn't actually succeed

in getting 100% of the tickets,

but they got enough

that they got lucky and they did win the jackpot.

[Narrator] Now, if you do actually decide to do this,

there are a bit of logistics involved.

You're actually gonna have to go

to the stores and buy those tickets.

You can't just pay the clerk

in a lottery store to buy those tickets

'cause they're not allowed to do that

by most lottery regulations,

and there's another 'gotcha' that's really obvious,

which is it could happen that someone else also wins

the jackpot and you have to split it with them.

So, as someone trying to pursue this strategy,

you absolutely want to keep your eyes open

to that possibility.

[Narrator] Finally, some states have a higher chance

of winning than others.

Statisticians and economists have mapped

out states that have a high rate of return.

A good recipe to look

for is you want a lottery where maybe not a lot

of people are buying tickets

and yet, the jackpot is pretty big.

So, there's a classic example of Oregon in 1999.

They had an $18,000,000 jackpot

and yet, they didn't sell that many tickets,

and what that means is when you buy a ticket

in such a drawing, you're unlikely to share the jackpot.

Similarly, in mid-aughts in Texas, the Llano,

Texas had drawings like that as well,

and so looking around for those kinds of drawings,

that's one way to increase your expected return

on buying a lottery ticket.

[Narrator] And scratchers can have a high rate

of return as well.

The lottery has printed it out and picked the prizes

in such a way that the total value of the prizes is less

than the amount people are gonna spend on tickets,

so they're gonna make money.

On average, you buy scratcher tickets

and you're gonna lose money, just like any other gambling.

That said, sometimes it happens that the big prizes

in the scratcher game don't get bought

at the beginning of the game,

and so effectively, all the people buying

up those tickets at the beginning got unlucky

and they didn't get the big prizes

and then the remaining lottery tickets,

the remaining scratchers that wait to be bought,

have too many prizes.

Many states show you how many

of the prizes have been claimed

and that information gets aggregated

into other websites like scratch

[screen whooshing]

and similar sites where you can go to that site

and they'll tell you sort

of which lottery scratcher ticket games

have better payouts right now.

[Narrator] Okay, so even if you've watched

this entire video and still think,

I need to win a lottery,

is there a way you can actually guarantee a lottery win?

You find a game where you have to guess

a four-digit number

and you bet the six-way box.

That means you're gonna bet on a four-digit number

with repeated digits, like 1122, or 1212,

and if you bet a six-way box,

it bets all the six possible ways

of writing a number with two ones

in it and two twos in it,

and if you do that, your odds of winning are one in 1,667,

and in most states, if you hit that,

if you win that bet, you will get $800,

which means you gotta go to a lottery office.

You probably will lose money, just so you know.

It is not a recipe for making money,

but it is a recipe for getting

to that lottery office with the least amount of effort.

[Narrator] And there even used to be a game where you

were almost guaranteed to win.

Marge and Jerry Selbee ended up winning

almost $8,000,000 playing the Massachusetts Cash Windfall.

They even made a movie about it.

We are bettin' 40,000.

You guys drug dealers?


[objects slamming]

We're professional lottery players.

In Cash Windfall, the way it worked

was when the jackpot got pretty big,

they would take some of that money

and increase the value of the smaller prizes.

So, to win the jackpot, you have to take the right number,

it's about a one in 9,000,000 chance,

but the smaller prizes are much more likely to win.

So, if you could buy some,

but not all, of the tickets in that situation,

like, say you could buy 1,000,000 tickets,

your odds of winning the jackpot are not

so big, one in nine,

but you're gonna win a bunch

of the lower tier prizes, which are now bigger,

and if they're enough bigger,

you're gonna make money out of your total investment.

[upbeat music]

It's really hard and unusual to be

in a situation where you

could reasonably expect to make money on the lottery.

It's gambling.

You might get lucky, but it's really getting lucky,

but I'm not telling you don't buy lottery tickets.

I personally buy lottery tickets.

I buy them for the fantasy to think

for a few days about, oh,

what happens if I win this big jackpot?

And that's really worth something.

[upbeat music]

Mathematician Breaks Down the Best Ways to Win the Lottery (2024)
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