Why you shouldn’t play the lottery

Watch this US Powerball simulator long enough and you’ll understand. Sean and I have now been “buying” two tickets a week for 350 years for a total of 36,400 games. We’ve spent $72,750 and made $5,417, which puts our rate of return at around 7 cents a ticket. We’ve never made more than $100 on a ticket.

Insert comment about the US education system’s failure to properly teach statistics here.


  1. Brownian says

    Where’s the button to check off if you plan to keep working and not let the money change your life?

    Because those jerks always seem to win the jackpots.

  2. silomowbray says

    I have a fair amount of statistics training but still buy the very occasional lottery ticket just for the few minutes of dreaming it affords me. I would guess I spend about $50 per year on lotteries. My biggest win was $500, but that was something like six years ago. Since then, what very few wins I’ve had were ‘Free Plays’ or $10 here and there. I think there was a $75 win in there too.

    So yeah, lotteries are a tax on the math-deficient. Also on people who get the math but want to imagine they just bought the winner for a few minutes.

  3. Jestbill says

    If you have no money to speak of and find that you have an extra dollar or two at week end, you can either buy something useless (soda, coffee etc.) or buy a lottery ticket.

    No, you cannot “save” it. People with only a dollar or two extra will spend it on something. It’s called human nature.

    A scratch-off lottery ticket will eventually pay you $50 or more. Fifty bucks is a FORTUNE to such people. The lottery is the only savings plan they have.

    For the rest of us, the lottery is entertainment. If I buy a cup of coffee I do not consider it an “investment” and neither do you.

  4. TychaBrahe says

    The thing about the lottery is that it should be viewed as entertainment. A lottery ticket costs me a dollar or so a week. Going to the movie on Saturday costs me $12.

    When I’m doing dishes or scrubbing the toilet, planning how I would spend a few million dollars is a pleasant fantasy. Theoretically, I could have that fantasy if I didn’t play the lottery, but the fact is if I don’t buy a ticket I know I can’t possibly win, vs. the knowledge, with a ticket, that a win is possible, even if highly improbable. It’s like the difference between dreaming you write a best selling novel when you’re actively writing a novel vs. when you know you don’t have the talent to be a writer.

  5. ajb47 says

    My wife and I only play when the pots get large. $20 once in awhile for a couple days of “Wouldn’t it be nice?” isn’t bad for us.

  6. says

    To be fair, my dad treats the scratch-off tickets as entertainment… but with a difference. He’s been spending a couple of dollars a week on them for the last couple of years. But when he wins, he sticks the money in a safe place and doesn’t spend it. That’s how he saved up $4000 in a couple of years and bought a mower and a TV. He probably spent $6000 to save $4000… but that’s better than buying stuff on a high-interest credit card, or rent-to-own, and he got a ton of excitement out of that $6000 PLUS $4000 worth of stuff.

  7. Ryan says

    It’s not an investment, it’s a game. I go to see movies, and I get zero cents back for every dollar I spend. No other form of entertainment gets this kind of scorn and contempt. Sure, there are people with gambling problems who spend way too much on lotteries, but the same is true of most other things. Alcohol, cars, food, etc.

  8. laconicsax says

    I once got into an argument with an antivaxer who’s allegedly a statistician. His argument was that “If 1 per 1,000,00 vaccine recipients gets GBS, doesn’t that number change to about 1 in 20,000 if one dutifully gets in line for an influenza vaccination every year for 50 years?”

    With that ironclad reasoning, I have to conclude that this powerball simulator is wrong. With each play, you’re one ticket closer to a guaranteed jackpot.

  9. Sarah says

    I’m so with you, Ryan and all the others who like to play. I come from a family of responsible gamblers. We play the lottery, cards, and take occasional trips to Reno. It’s worth it to us because it’s fucking fun! I’ve gotten more shit about gambling than being an atheist. We are fully aware the odds are not in our favor. Not to mention some lottery money in my state (Oregon) goes to schools and state parks.

  10. lpetrich says

    I have a relative who had gambled as entertainment. He’d allot himself some money to gamble with, and when it was all used up, he’d stop.

    That’s the way that gambling systems are set up – on average, the house always wins. That’s where casinos’ money comes from.

  11. Brian says

    Joe Bob Briggs once complained about the common phrase that “lotteries are a tax on the math-ignorant”, arguing instead that lotteries are a tax on the desperate. His claim was that the people who buy the most lottery tickets are the people who have few other options to change their circumstances. Since most people would agree that a democratic government should not profit from citizens being desperate, he therefore argued that state-run lotteries should not be legal.

  12. SidBB says

    I buy the occasional ticket for the sake of entertainment, as other commenters have pointed out. Yes, it may be a “tax on the stupid” as the saying goes, but also think about where some of that “tax revenue” goes (other than the winners).

    I don’t know about American lotteries, but I’ve read that the UK National Lottery funds are used for a large number of good causes. For instance, being a huge film buff, I’ve noticed that some excellent indie British films (Fish Tank, In the Loop) have the National Lottery logo in the credits.

    If some of my wasted lottery ticket money goes to causes like that, I’m fine with it.

  13. smrnda says

    It might be worth pointing out that in Illinois, my home state, education is funded in part by lottery sales.

    I don’t think playing the lottery is as irrational as people think. I’m college educated and relatively skilled, so I have other ways to make money. Once you are sufficiently down and out, the lottery represents very small odds of getting ahead, but it’s possibly the only option you have that might get you ahead at all.

  14. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    When I worked at a convenience store, selling lotto tickets was the worst part of my job. I’d watch people come in, most often towards the beginning of the months when their meager welfare benefits came in, and spend $20-40 on scratch tickets. They’d scratch them all in the store, win $10 or so, and buy another $20 worth of tickets. Sometimes they’d spend hours in the store, wrestling with whether or not to keep going. These are the lottery dollars that fund your state’s schools, not the responsible middle class folks who buy one powerball ticket a week.

  15. says

    If utility is ever nonconvex with respect to income (e.g., disproportionately high utility from low returns), then buying a lottery ticket is rational. If anybody wants I can try to dig up the relevant paper.

  16. Alverant says

    I’ve figured out a system for playing the lotto that works. If by “works” you mean “maximum guaranteed return for minimum investment and disappointment”. I just don’t play. All my lotto daydreams start with “I give in to temptation and buy a ticket on the way to work and win.” I spend no money, get the same dream as actual players, and I don’t feel that twinge of disappointment when someone else wins the big prize. Plus my odds of winning are just slightly worse than those two do play (0 instead of almost 0).

    I don’t care if people play for entertainment, as long as they know the odds and are willing to do it. My concern are the people who are counting on a win, the ones dysomniak described or the people who are depending on a win for their retirement. Last time I actually bought a ticket was when I hated my job so much that I NEEDED to win so I could quit and tell my boss to stick his head up his ass. That’s when I realized the lure of the lotto. For some it’s harmless fun, for others it’s their best hope of survival. And I don’t know how I feel about it.

  17. Ganner says

    If you buy tickets with any real expectation of winning, or are one of the sadly ignorant people who consider buying lottery tickets an investment, it’s a problem. If you drop a couple bucks every now and then for the novelty and can afford to lose it, knowing you’ll almost certainly never get anything out of it except for a brief thrill of checking the numbers, there’s really no problem in it. Dangerous how alluring it can be to people, especially those who don’t understand what they’re really up against.

  18. says

    dysomniak @14.

    One of my biggest pet peeves in life is standing on line at a card shop while the person in front of me takes about 5 minutes to pick out the 20 different scratch off cards he or she is spending $40 bucks on.

    One time I saw this sad sight of an elderly lady who spent $30 on scratch off tickets while I was waiting to get some helium balloons. She didn’t win anything and proceeded to buy another $20 worth. Still didn’t win anything. So she buys another ten dollars worth.

    For some people, it probably is a form of entertainment to spend maybe five bucks here and there. But it’s either an addiction or a state of desperation when one shells out $40 or $50 bucks at a time on a regular basis.

  19. RealityBasedSteve says

    When I turned 50 my friends got me 50 One Dollar instant scratch off tickets. (all kinds of different games). I enjoyed scratching off each square in turn, hoping “this is the one”. The initial 50 dollars got me 5 bucks in cash and 6 free tickets. Here’s where it gets good…

    Of the 6 free tickets, 5 were nothing, and 1 was another free ticket. I grabbed it, figured I was done, and scratched off the film. To my shock and surprise, I had won exactly nothing.

    Due to this, I’ve had to sell my cats to an illegal cat juggler. If only I had know before.

    In Tennessee, where the Department of Education’s official motto is “Thank God for Mississippi”, the lottery funds go to finance the collage scholarship program.

    Who admits that the part about the illegal cat juggler is made up.

  20. dukeofomnium says

    They say that the lottery is taxation on the math impaired. On the other hand, I am totally going to win the next Powerball jackpot, since I got the winning numbers from a fortune cookie.

  21. Barry H. says

    I wanted to respond to this one because it says something similar to what I was thinking. My dad is a habitual lottery player and not a Dumb Guy. I took the time to explain the math to him one time and when I finished he said “I already know I’m never going to win, but what other chance do I have?”

    Ever since that hit home in a big way I’ve been rather opposed to the lottery as an exploiter of the hopes and dreams of the desperate. Worrying about the statistics misses the point entirely for many people who want the American Dream, it’s the only chance they have.

  22. Andy Groves says

    If you and Sean had invested four bucks a week for 350 years at 3% interest, your descendants would have over 230,000,000 bucks.

  23. Joel Grant says

    It is worse than you think.

    I have noticed that people who pay $1 for a scratch ticket and uncover a $2 symbol believe they are $2 to the good.

  24. Snoof says

    That’s a sodding awful expectation value. Surely it can’t be legal.

    7c/ticket? That’s amazing. I mean, it’s _positive_. How are the lotteries making money?

    Oh, wait. That’s not including the price of the ticket, is it? Figures.

  25. says

    I may be the only person who does this but my way of enjoying lotteries is to occasionally buy a Scratchie but not scratch it. I then apply the Schrodinger’s cat principle to the exercise.

    The thinking behind this is that while the ticket remains unscratched I am simultaneously both a Millionaire and not.

    Sadly, the wife and children keep scratching the cards and thus end my joyous duality and making me singularly poor again.

  26. kurt says

    Every now and then the jackpot on a lottery will grow so large that it becomes a sound investment, based solely on the expected return. (Not that that’s the right way to analyze the situation–although I seem to recall reading about a case where a group of people attempted to cover all possible combinations under just such a scenario.)

  27. says

    I used to work at one company where they had a lotto pool when the payoffs got particularly big. When that happened i’d pitch in a dollar, just for the pleasure of asking, “if we win, how many of you expect to actually survive until monday?”

  28. mcbender says

    My grandfather was really into the lottery for some reason. He made something of a hobby out of it, although looking back what he did makes absolutely no sense; I seem to recall him keeping track of winning numbers and trying to find statistical patterns using computer programs (which he may have written himself; I don’t recall).

    He was an MD and spent a lot of his spare time tinkering with electronics; he was certainly not stupid and in fact was my primary role model for many years. Nevertheless, he was completely irrational about the lottery.

    I think he knew it, too, because he never complained when young-me wanted to pick the numbers and would substitute them for the ones chosen by his system, and he sometimes just used a random number generator instead anyhow. I think it was just a way to pass the time for him, but he played at minimum five games a week…

  29. says

    Because those jerks always seem to win the jackpots.

    I have always felt it should be a bonafide law that Lottery Jackpot winners who don’t quit their jobs within 90 days of collecting their Jackpot winnings must be required to pay it back.

    If they have no intention of retiring then they should leave the frelling money in the kitty for the people who do!

  30. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    I can’t believe how many people are defending the lottery on my blog. I don’t see how throwing away money is entertainment

    Uncertainty is thrilling?

  31. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    350 years from now you might be able to FIND something that’ll pay back 3% interest

  32. Tim Matter says

    I do pay the “stupidity tax” sometimes. Only the ones that, after taxes, would allow me and my wife to retire. I get a couple days of dreaming that I might not have to go to work Monday morning, for about the price of a cup of coffee.

  33. says

    Yes, but isn’t the allure of the Lotto?

    Its definitely true that I can sock away $4.00 every week and have a Million plus dollars when I retire or I can play for $4.00 every week in the hope I can retire now!

    Honestly, I don’t want to retire when I’m 65 – 70; when I’m too old to enjoy my life; when my bones are creaking and my organs are failing; when my eyesight is so bad I can’t see. I don’t want to be so old that the arthritis in my knees makes it nearly impossible to stand, or my back is so worn and twisted that all I want to do is sit in a chair and watch cheesy daytime TV.

    No, I want to retire NOW while I’m young and can enjoy it. I sit at work every day, bored out of my mind, thinking of the hundreds of things I’d rather be doing right then than working. I always feel intense pity for those people who keep telling me, “Oh, you’d be bored if you retired now!” No, just because they don’t have the imagination to imagine what they’d do with their life outside of work doesn’t mean I do.

    Now realistically I know I have to plan for my retirement, but I also spend the $4.00 each week because people win and there is always that small, tiny, imperceptible chance that I’ll get lucky and can retire early allowing me to enjoy my life the way I want to.

    Besides, I know I’m going to win. I’m 100% certain I’ll win – when I’m 95, in the retirement home, on life support. :-)

  34. Lagerbaer says

    Here’s an experiment I’d like to see:
    Each month, but shares in a randomly picked blue chip stock for the same amount it would cost to play the lottery for a month. Simulate this for, say, the last 10 years, and compare the return…

  35. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Some people go the other way. Tens of millions of dollars sounds like a lot of money (because it is), but after you’ve paid half to the IRS, bought your mansion and your private jet, and spent a year or two “partying like a rock star”, don’t be surprised if you end up broke again.

  36. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Just to be crystal clear, when I said that was the worst part of my job I wasn’t referring to the hassle. There were plenty of other customers who were bigger pains in the ass. The reason I hated it was because I knew I was complicit in giving these poor (like me), desperate (also like me) people false hope while taking money from them that they really couldn’t afford to lose. At least when I sold booze to a drunk I knew they’d enjoy it.

  37. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    How about a reverse lottery? Rich people buy tickets for $1000 each, the money goes straight into poverty relief and every week we pick numbers to see which rich asshole gets to take credit?

  38. Randomfactor says

    Here in California too. Here’s how it works: Lottery money gets allocated to the schools. Republican legislators note that the schools are already “taken care of” by the lottery and cut back on school funding.

    (I play about $100 or so a year, lotto games. It’s largely a tribute to my late wife, with whom I used to play the “all our dreams are just one drawing away” game.)

  39. Jestbill says


    Rather than advocate a change of our Darwinist economic arrangement, let’s remove the last remaining hope.

    I have a real problem understanding mainstream indifference to poverty. Poverty is not the sniffles, it is a cancer.

  40. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Rather than worrying about the “last remaining [false] hope” how about considering the fact that lottery earnings are essentially a highly regressive form of taxation? Your comment sounds a lot like those assholes who defend sweatshops because “at least they have jobs”.

  41. ChrisP says

    That actually might be feasible, if you replace “gets to take credit” with “gets to take a tax write-off for n% of the total amount purchased.”
    Now, how does one go about starting up something like this?

  42. Brad says

    Tax write-off lottery for the rich. I like it. I think we set that up by talking to our various state governments.

  43. mildlymagnificent says

    I’ve always seen lottery tickets as “$1 worth of dreams”.

    But it’s become a problem. The longer you live, you discover more and more projects, charities, causes that you’d be willing to share your unearned riches with. So now those “dreams” require much bigger jackpots to share out more and more money or involve a lot of shifting and shuffling of priorities. Makes me feel the way treasurers and government ministers must feel about allocating or pruning funds for the 100s of deserving recommendations that come to them.

  44. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    I’m sure some people do, but FFS you’re smarter than that.

  45. Anitvera says

    Yeah, the National Lottery in the UK is pretty good. The lottery funding goes to a lot of small independent charities that really need the help. There’s a charity near where I am called Central Advocacy Partners that helps people with learning disabilities. A lot of the work that they do is funded by the lottery.

    Then there’s also the renovation projects on castles or public services like swimming pools that the lottery funds. I can’t remember how much of the lottery money you pay goes towards the charity fund, but I think its quite a bit.

  46. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Oh, so the lottery in Britain somehow manages to avoid preying on the poor and desperate? Please share your methods so we can implement them over here.

  47. Dunc says

    Can I just mention how pleased I am that there’s still somebody out there using the word “frell”? ‘Scapers forever!

  48. Lisa says

    Plus, a lot of the gold medals the UK won in the Olympics happened because of National Lottery funding of athletes

  49. Gordon says

    I think lotteries are a manifestation of hopelessness rather than statistical ignorance. However long the odds of winning get, it seems like those are the only odds of escaping from drudgery for most people. It’s not that you are expecting to win so much as you have no other route out.

    Astronomical odds vs No chance at all.

    That’s grim.

  50. =8)-DX says

    One ticket closer to a guarranteed jackpot? You do know that every ticket you buy has the same chance of winning and that past results (even a million past tickets) have no influence on your chances of winning in the future? Actually every ticket you lose with is exactly one ticket AWAY from the jackpot, Mwuahahaha!

  51. Ysanne says

    Actually, my uncle manages to do the dreaming without actually buying a ticket. His fantasy involves a fortunate coincidence of obtaining the winning ticket.
    Seeing how the chance of having the winning ticket is practically zero, the odds of his dream coming true aren’t getting all that much lower by including some unlikely means of getting the ticket in the first place.

  52. Howard says

    Actually, either you win the lottery, or you don’t. Therefore the chance of winning is 50/50.

    Also, set theory is of the devil.

  53. Howard says

    I might add that after 450 years and 46,804 games, using the PowerPlay option, I’ve spent 140,412 dollars and won 18,560, giving me a net loss of 121,852 dollars and an approx. 13 cent win per ticket.

    So it seems that powerplay is less of a scam than regular play.

  54. says

    I once did a radio piece on the NY lottery in which I calculated the relative chances of being hurt or killed in a road accident and of winning. Not very rigorously, I admit, but I think it worked out that if the place you bought the ticket was more than a couple of hundred yards you’d better not drive there.
    ImprobaDad is really lucky someone didn’t drive into the house and knock the TV over, thereby squashing him.

  55. Johanna says

    “Honestly, I don’t want to retire when I’m 65 – 70; when I’m too old to enjoy my life; when my bones are creaking and my organs are failing; when my eyesight is so bad I can’t see. I don’t want to be so old that the arthritis in my knees makes it nearly impossible to stand, or my back is so worn and twisted that all I want to do is sit in a chair and watch cheesy daytime TV.”

    When people say stuff like this, it makes me wonder how many 65-70 year olds they actually know. The ones I know are enjoying life plenty.

  56. Blueaussi says

    Just about everyone wastes a few dollars here or there. I always order more seeds than I could possibly plant; but during catalog fondling season, the dreams of acres of flowers, tomatoes, and peppers makes me very happy. My Great Poo Pet of Love buys small appliances and old computers at yard sales with the intent of fixing them up and reselling to friends or on eBay or something; but, after a few years, they mostly get recycled on Earth Day.
    One of my co-workers gets manicures and pedicures she can ill afford, but it makes her feel pampered and special for just a little while.

    So, if someone wants to waste their money on lottery tickets, *shrug* it’s their money, and it’s not really my place to judge what their choice of ways to waste it is. Not that that stops me, mind you; but when I quit yapping and think about it, it is their money and therefor their choice.

  57. Gus Snarp says

    I buy a lottery ticket once in a while when the jackpots are really huge. Of course I know I almost certainly won’t win, but I do like to ponder what I would do with the money (currently: create a charitable foundation which actually cashes in the lottery ticket, then pays me a set amount per year while using the rest of the gains on the investment of the winnings to donate to various charitable organizations, finally paying out all the income after my death), and I also think of it as a donation. And there’s the thing, people buy tickets for school, church, and other raffles not because they think they’re going to win the TV, but because the money goes to the school, church, or whatever (sorry about including church, it’s just that the Catholics seem to enjoy gambling so much that it seems to be the most common sort of raffle). So I think of buying a lottery ticket as a donation to public schools, with a little fun on the side. Sadly, I doubt most people do.

    The other thing I think about is all the horrible things that could happen in a lifetime to me and my family, and how wonderfully unlikely it is that they actually will…and then suddenly I feel just awful fantasizing about winning the lottery, since it is far more likely that one of those awful things will happen. Yeah, when you think about the statistics, suddenly that whole “well, somebody’s going to win eventually” mentality gets real depressing.

  58. leftwingfox says

    So yeah, lotteries are a tax on the math-deficient.

    Not quite.

    I have a fair amount of statistics training but still buy the very occasional lottery ticket just for the few minutes of dreaming it affords me.

    They’re a tax on hope.

  59. AlexW says

    Exactly, your comment reminds me of what Marx once said regarding religious criticism. Namely that the imaginary flowers are plucked from the chain, not so that the chain must be borne without consolation, but so that the chain may be broken and the living flower cultivated.

  60. Tedd632 says

    That’s exactly what happened in Illinois when the lottery was first allowed back in the 70s. It was promoted as “all this extra money for education”. Then after the lottery act passed, they put the lottery profits to education and zeroed out all the money that was formerly going to education.

    Net benefit of the lottery to schools = zero

    State Legislatures sure are interesting!(large sarcasm)

  61. Sam N says

    That’s great for people with such imaginations. A lot of us need fantasy aids, hence buying a ticket, it’s a nice prop, especially because it has numbers that can be scanned by machines at the convenience store and everything!

    Yeah, I’m another one of those that buys a ticket now and then to put myself in a day dream. And I agree with the poster that mentioned it’s a better way to spend that cash than on soda.

  62. hoary puccoon says

    I never buy lottery tickets except for local raffles where the money supports the organization. I usually cross my fingers I won’t win, because the prizes are dreck.

    But here’s the thing. If you’re on welfare and you put money in the bank– from any source– your welfare checks stop until that money’s gone. So, essentially, you get nothing. You can stuff it under your mattress, if you can keep the state from finding out. But if you’re on welfare, you’re probably living in a high-crime neighborhood, so there’s a good chance you won’t be able to keep it that way, either. So, spending any small amount of extra money you have on lottery tickets gives you at least some chance of hitting a jackpot that will actually be enough to do you some good. What’s rational to a statistician with a steady job is not necessarily rational to those in desperate straits.

  63. says

    Lotteries are just a clever, if not evil, way of shifting the tax burden. Most of the lotteries are sold as a way to fund schools that would have been otherwise supported with property tax. It is general the poor how buy the tickets, and it’s generally the wealth who enjoy the benefit of paying lower taxes, than they would have otherwise.

    That’s one of the reasons for all their cries about corrupt societies and moral bankruptcies, the right rarely says a peep about state run lotteries.

    So quite literally, the only way to win the lottery is not to play it.

  64. Kevin K says

    My fantasy aids are nothing like lottery tickets.

    Most of them involve Anne Hathaway as Cat Woman.

  65. robb says

    you *can* play the powerball and have positive expectation of winning. the odds of hitting the big win are 1 in 175,223,510. the new cost is $2. so if the jackpot gets up twice the odds, say >$350M, you are getting a positive expectation value. however, if you factor in the fact that many more people buy tickets when the jackpot is large, to acutally get a positive expectation, the jackpot should be larger to compensate you for when you split the winnings with multiple winners. i am just guesstimating that >$400 million might be good enough.

    another way to boost your odds for not splitting the pot when you win is to make sure you have multiple numbers that are 32 or higher. people tend to pick numbers that are anniversaries of some sort, so the lower numbers are over represented in the tickets sold because people pick dates. by having high numbers, you have a better chance of winning alone.

  66. The Lorax says

    There’s a reason Vegas is so bright and colorful, and it’s not because people are winning.

    Gambling wouldn’t be a business if your customers were statistically likely to earn more than they bought.

    I have a hard enough time scoring a critical hit on a d20. I am not going to try my luck on a d20000000.

  67. Andy Groves says

    A resonably-balanced portfolio of bonds and stocks with low investment fees is almost 100% guaranteed to net you at least 3% annually over the period that most people should be saving for their retirements.

  68. George Martin says

    I played with the simulation on Monday and found the same thing that Howard did. Without the power option, two dollars per ticket, my return was around the seven cents per dollar wagered that Jen reported. When I selected the power option, three dollars per ticket, my return also went up to about thirteen cents per dollar.

    The reason for this is that the payouts for the winning matches somewhat more than double for the extra dollar.


  69. Art says

    Statistics based upon memory tends to gets slanted toward unwarranted optimism because people tend to quickly forget minor disappointments but hold onto the memory of a windfall for a long time. I have seen this sort of selective memory with nearly every regular lottery player I know. They have no clear memory of the thousands of times they got nothing but can recall every detail of that one time they won a thousand dollars years ago.

    To get around this it is helpful to have them keep written records of their lottery spending and outcomes over a long period. Math don’t lie.

    I suspect that avoiding the cold hard fact that the lottery is a losing proposition statistically is behind why some lottery players assiduously avoid keeping records.

  70. says

    You forget that state and federal taxes take about 40% off the top. So if you were the only winner, you would need a jackpot of 500 million. If you take the lump sum, you have to double that. So for a single ticket winner, the pot has to be closer to a billion dollars to break even. And with a pot that big, there will be enough tickets sold so that there are probably going to be more than one winner.

  71. smrnda says

    There’s also a racist/classist element to the support of the lottery as a way to raise government funds. Privileged upper and middle class people like expanding gambling as a way to raise revenues because it’s a regressive tax they won’t be paying. Whatever benefit the lottery conveys, it eats up more money from people who really can’t afford to lose any.

  72. gworroll says

    At one point I was considering running an analysis of winning lottery numbers, in the hopes of finding an exploitable flaw in the number selection process. My thought was that the numbers might not be as random as they were claimed to be, and that a thorough analysis of a large set of results might be able to prove this and guide ideal number selection. I had no actual evidence of this, it was just a thought I had of something that could be possible.

    Then I thought about the amount of work this would involve, compared it to the extremely small advantage this would give even if my premise turned out to be true, and gave up before I started. Any flaw large enough to make the lottery a good way to make money would have been found and corrected years ago.

    This idea occasionally comes back to the front of my mind when I’m broke, though.

  73. smrnda says

    3% annually doesn’t sound that impressive to me, and one of the big problems with being poor is the inability to save money. If you are sufficiently poor, you can’t ‘save’ since an unexpected expense – the type of thing that wouldn’t bother someone with more money – will eat up months if not years worth of savings. Be poor and have the misfortune to get sick or need a root canal, or have your car break down, and years worth of savings are obliterated.

    Once I was around enough poor people, I quit believing that their problem was that they weren’t being responsible and saving money. All of them ended up broke, it was just a question of when. Those who saved money might have held out a little longer, but some unexpected expense always did them in.

  74. Barry H. says

    I’m having a hard time imagining a more inept reading of what I actually wrote there.

    Opposing the lottery on grounds of extorting people out of disposable income which they don’t actually possess (and for which there are uses considerably more likely to actually help lift them out of poverty) does not mean I support the status quo, nor does it indicate an indifference to poverty – exactly the opposite, as a matter of fact.

  75. Georgia Sam says

    I agree about the education system’s failure to adequately teach probability & statistics, but have you tried a strategy of playing only when the jackpot gets big enough that the payoff is higher than the odds? Will the simulator allow you to do that?

  76. M31 says

    I was once forced to buy a lottery ticket by my roommate. I insisted on picking the number 1-2-3-4-5-6 and I got this look like “oh man, that will NEVER happen”.

    I didn’t win, sadly.

  77. Andy Groves says

    I certainly didn’t mean to sound like I was lecturing the poor in America for not saving for their retirement. I think your points are very well taken. It would be much easier to save if they were paid a living wage and were not being screwed for payday loans, health care costs and social security, to name just three.

  78. says

    I detest the way casinos prey on Seniors to nab their Social Security checks.

    My mother is involved with the community Senior Center. Most of the trips they plan are to casinos. The casinos hand out $10 and $20 vouchers to each of them, “free money.”

    No matter how often I talk to my mother about this, she continually insists that she has all of these friends who “never lose” and “always leave winning money.” One friend supposedly “wins over $1000 every time she goes.”

    I got no answer when I asked why, if that were true, her friend (who I’ve heard herself claim to never lose) sells garbagegy crap at flea markets for extra money instead of “making” $1000 a day by going to the casino instead.

    Buffalo let itself get overrun by casinos. Richmond CA had one planned, has another semi-secretly in the works. San Pablo has one.

    Everyone in these places sees them as a cure for the economic depression in their hard-hit towns. Nobody ever listens when I point out that there’s plenty of money in other cities, why not locate there? Why only depressed, blighted towns? It seems like casinos are targeting only the desperate communities, like a predator.

    Not only do I not get through to people with this, they get mad. Very mad.

    I don’t get it.

  79. says

    but have you tried a strategy of playing only when the jackpot gets big enough that the payoff is higher than the odds?

    I forget where I read this recently, might have been in a FTB comment actually.

    Y’know what casinos say to people who have a “strategy?”
    They say “Welcome!”

  80. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Unless that strategy work (card counting), in which case they’ll kick your ass to the curb.

    People have uncovered statistical weaknesses in scratch games but exploiting these weaknesses is beyond the means of the typical lottery addict. They play because it’s the only way they can see to free themselves from the situation they were (most likely) born into.

    Ask yourself if you’re really comfortable with government services being funded by the desperation of the poor.

  81. Jestbill says

    Well, here I am–too late to take part in what turned out to be an actual discussion.

    If people drink too much, outlaw alcohol.
    If people gamble too much, outlaw gambling. NOT!
    Deal with the underlying problem and leave the rest of us our vices.

    Anyone who quotes Marx has to explain how their quote would upset Trotsky. Is it OK to crash the whole system to reform it?

  82. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    @jestbill The question isn’t whether or not gambling should be legal but rather if it’s right for state governments to lessen the tax burden on the wealthy by playing on the desperation of the poor.

  83. Marcus Hill (mysterious and nefarious) says

    Lotteries are, as has been pointed out, simply a way of shifting the tax burden to the poor.

    The UK national lottery pays out around 50p to the £, with 28p goind to “good causes” (though these are often things, like arts and sports, that used to be largely government funded) and the rest going to tax, retailers, operational costs and profit for Camelot (the company that runs the lottery).

    So, even generously interpreted, spending £1 on the lottery gets you a bit of entertainment, 50p in prizes on average and gives 28p to “good causes” that you have no part in choosing, with the remaining 22p going to stuff you’d never choose to pay for if you had the choice.

    Let’s say you still want to get those sorts of things. Consider the return on investment of 50p to be a minimum bottom line, and say you want that to be an expected outcome after the excitement of gambling. The best bet (in return percentages) on purely random casino games comes from playing roulette. If you’re in the UK, most casinos only have one zero on the wheel (as opposed to the greedy US casinos with their 00), so the payout is around 97.3%. Gambling 52p on the roulette, then, will get you a little more than 50p back on average. If you still want to spend £1, you can get the excitement of gambling, still get 50p back on average and you get to give 48p (rather than a measly 28p) to whatever good causes you like, rather than shoring up stuff that should be taxpayer funded.

    Why don’t people do this? Simple. Lotteries are deliberately made convenient for the poor to play. Yes, the well off gamble as entertainment and they view it as exactly that. Winning is a nice bonus. However, just as Jafafa Hots notes for casinos in the US, if you look at where bookmakers are sited in the UK, you’ll note that they’re in working class neighbourhoods. Like the lottery, they are selling overpriced false hope to the desperate.

  84. linuxryan says

    My grandparents used to go on those senior’s trips all the time, to Atlantic City.

    They would get there, convert the vouchers to chips, hit the buffet provided by the casino, then cash in the chips to buy a nice dinner before heading home.

    Never gambled a nickel…

  85. says

    Actually you can show via game theory that if your weekly income is sufficiently higher than the weekly cost of a ticket, buying one is a good idea.

    Don’t ask me for the theory anymore, it was 1972 that I took that course, ticket cost was $0.50/week, salary was about $180/week and for me it was a good idea. Not that I did.

  86. Laurence says

    Having the lottery in GA was the main reason that I was able to go to college. In GA there’s something called the HOPE scholarship which will pay full tuition for any state school in GA if you have a 3.0 or higher GPA. This is one of the only ways that some extremely poor people have to go to college without putting themselves in a huge amount of debt or sometimes at all. So I’m okay with the lottery.

  87. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    So it doesn’t bother you that your education was funded by desperation, rather than by the people who could afford it? Nice.

  88. ButchKitties says

    I play when my coworkers form a lottery pool, which only happens when the jackpot gets above $150 million. Instead of playing for the chance to dream about winning, I play to avoid nightmares about everyone at work but me winning. If I’d pay $5 for a pill to make that anxiety go away, I might as well join the lottery pool.

  89. ButchKitties says

    I treat gambling like renting a bowling lane or putting quarters in a Pac Man machine. I’m paying a fee to play a game. It’s easy to avoid big losses when you think of money gambled as money spent, and your goal is to maximize your game time rather than to win lots of money.

  90. eoraptor013 says

    A statistician once told me your odds of winning the lottery are not substantially improved by playing. That stuck with me pretty well.

    (Confession: it didn’t stop me from putting $2 down when it got to over $500 X 10^6)

  91. says

    It really doesn’t affect me either way how people who gamble for fun justify it, any more than it affects them that I play MMORPGs.

    What annoys me about lotteries is that they are a regressive tax (as leftwingfox said above, a tax on hope, to boot).

  92. Beh says

    350 years… wow didn’t know the lottery was that old. You must be really old too. We should contact someone about a world record.

  93. Quietmarc says

    Human nature. We’re biased to be conservative when considering potential gains but risk-takers when avoiding potential losses.

  94. ButchKitties says

    I realize I’m making mistakes similar to these monkeys, but my brain tends to go all or nothing when it comes to anxiety, and joining the lottery pool is cheaper than Xanax.

  95. says

    So you can either buy something useless, or you can buy something even more useless (i.e., a lottery ticket). A can of pop or a cup of coffee has a use: you drink them. They satisfy your thirst. They taste good. If caffeinated, they give you a pleasant chemical buzz for a time.

    You can’t drink the lottery ticket. The only “buzz” it will give is the anticipation before you find out (in the vast majority of cases) that it was a losing ticket. It is a piece of cardstock paper without so much as an interesting poem on it. Except in the rare occasions when it repays you your original investment or more, it is far more “useless” than a cup of coffee or a can of pop.

    Yes, human nature may be to spend that last dollar. It’s not the nature of any human I know, who, if down to that last dollar, would hold onto it for fear of needing it (buying frivolities tends to be the purview of people who feel they have an excess of money). But I suppose, some uneducated person who thought that this dollar would give them a good chance of having more dollars in the near future, might spend that last dollar.

    This underscores the need to educate people. It’s through education that we recognize the fallacies, failings, and faults of “human nature” and can work to correct them. “Human nature” is to appreciate anecdotes over data. “Human nature” is to assign agency to mechanistic processes. “Human nature” is to assume that correlation equals causation, and so forth. With education, we can recognize that these aspects of human nature exist and are detrimental to ourselves and to society at large.

    Similarly, with a little math education, that person whose “human nature” is to spend their last dollar in hopes of more dollars, may be able to realize that holding onto that dollar, and doing so repeatedly in similar circumstances, leads inevitably and assuredly to having more dollars. Delaying gratification may not be an aspect of “human nature,” but it is an aspect of growing up and learning that acting on impulse isn’t always beneficial.

  96. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Computer simulations don’t have to run in real-time, genius.

  97. jaz says

    hey guys just been reading some comments and im intrigued as to why some people seem to be offended by the lotteries i say everyones got a mind of their own wether they want to put it on or not, providing you spend within boundries, try saying some of the things to the actual people that have won the jackpots.im a workin class citizen whos been playin for 2 years now spend fair few bucks a week on it but im spending within my means, im just the like any other guy whos wanting to make some bucks to start a life, but im thinkin the odds are stacked against me looks like my life will never begin.lol

  98. wiki65 says

    Lottery winnings count as income. You have to pay taxes on it just the same as if you had earned it from your job. The amount you will get back depends on whether taxes were withheld from the winnings you received or not.

    In other words, if you over payed taxes on your income and over payed taxes on your lottery income you will get more money back. If you over payed taxes on your income and taxes were not withheld from your lottery winnings, you will get less back or may end up owing taxes depending on the amount you won.

  99. Zachary Tarlow says

    If I didn’t spend a dollar a day on the lottery, I would probably spend it on an extra doughnut, which would be worse for my health then a lotto ticket. The lottery is the only form of entertainment which pays you at least some money back some of the time. (and yes, I know that I’m spending $365 per year on the lotto.)

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