Is Winning the Lottery Really a Great Way to Get Rich?

Is Winning the Lottery Really a Great Way to Get Rich?


Lottery is the practice of randomly selecting numbers or symbols and awarding prizes based on those choices. It is an ancient activity, attested to in the Bible (the casting of lots was used to determine who got to keep Jesus’ clothes), and it has long been popular in Europe and the United States. Today, Americans play the lottery in large numbers, contributing billions of dollars a year to state coffers. But is winning the lottery really a great way to get rich? And, if so, how can you increase your odds of doing so?

The book begins with a nod to the history of lotteries, but Cohen’s main focus is on their modern incarnation. In the nineteen-sixties, he writes, “America’s obsession with unimaginable wealth—and the dream of winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot—coincided with a crisis in state funding.” As populations rose and inflation accelerated, it became increasingly difficult for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

State governments began to look for alternatives that would avoid angering the electorate, and that led them to turn to the lottery. In 1964, New Hampshire introduced the first state-run lottery, and other states followed suit. The rise of the lottery coincided with a national tax revolt, starting in the late twenties and accelerating in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, as voters cut their property taxes, turned to vouchers for public schools, and rejected income tax increases.

Lotteries are designed to be as random as possible, which means there are no foolproof strategies for increasing your chances of winning. The only ways to guarantee a win are either to cheat the lottery, which almost always ends up in prison time, or to invest a substantial amount of money in multiple tickets that cover all possible combinations. The latter option is often referred to as “pooling.” Romanian-born mathematician Stefan Mandel famously pooled his resources and won the lottery 14 times.

A common misconception is that the more tickets you buy, the better your chance of winning. This is incorrect, and the reason for this is that the tickets you buy are randomly selected by a machine, which selects a set of numbers or symbols every second. Each ticket represents a single possible combination, and the number of tickets purchased determines the frequency with which a particular combination is chosen.

The truth is that the odds of winning are much lower than most people realize, and the vast majority of players are unlikely to ever win anything substantial. The average winner keeps less than $200,000, and most of that is money spent on tickets. The rest is the cost of the prize and any hidden fees. It’s no wonder that most people don’t think the lottery is a good investment. But there is a message in the way the lottery is marketed: It obscures its regressivity by framing it as a game. In truth, it is a dangerous addiction that drains taxpayer dollars.