How Does A Lottery Work?

Lottery Tickets

How Does A Lottery Work?

All of us have at least once thought of putting money on a lottery ticket. Lottery advertisements, peer pressure, curiosity, or simply being bored in life can hint you toward trying your luck in a lottery.

You know it is a gamble, but what if this is your lucky moment? You might get nothing out of it, but you might just make a fortune. If you are on the fence about getting involved, it will help if you know how lotteries work. Let us look at the history of the lottery and the odds of you winning if you buy a ticket.

What is a lottery?

A lottery is a state-run gamble. Most states in the United States and the District of Columbia in Washington DC have their lotteries. The United Kingdom has a state franchised National Lottery operating since 1994 and regulated by the Gambling Commission.

History of lottery

People love gambling; they have been doing it since the dawn of time. The lottery system resembling what we see today first appeared in Burgundy and Flanders in the 15th century. They tried to raise money for the defense forces or the poor. 

Private and public profit lotteries were started in France after Francis I gave his official approval. In Italy, one of the first European public lotteries was created with the support of the ruling d’Este family. 

But the Genoa lottery strikes the closest resemblance with the modern lottery system. In spite of resistance from the Roman Catholic Church, it spread to several Italian cities and beyond. The first national lottery in united Italy was started in 1863 with weekly drawings. The proceedings were used as financial aid for the state. This lottery was the mother of modern gambling games like the numbers game, keno, bingo, and lotto. 

In 1566, Queen Elizabeth I of England started a general lottery to raise funds for public repairs. People picked up the trend; in 1612, King James I gave his permission for a lottery to raise money for the Jamestown Colony of Virginia. Lotteries were not particularly effective as financial aid, but they were still hailed as the best way to gather funds. Except for a few disagreements and bans, lotteries ran smoothly in England until 1627.

In 1812, the famous Spanish Christmas Lottery was organized for the first time. They used the proceeds to fund Cadiz’s resistance against Napoleon’s forces. The lottery made it through the Spanish Civil War and became the second longest-running lottery in the world.

In the years to come, lotteries had fallen out of business because of their moral implications. Negative connotations like corruption and organized crime were closely linked to the lottery system. The federal government banned them in 1895. They were, however, revived in 1964. The first multi-state lottery was organized in 1985. Powerball and Mega Millions, the priciest lotteries in America, followed suit in 1992 and 1996 respectively. 

Lottery games

Lotteries usually involve different kinds of games involving scratch cards, daily draws, drawing balls, and picking numbers. The UK National Lottery also has ThunderBall and Set For Life and common ones like Lotto and scratchcards. The Lotto game is very popular in lotteries. There is a machine with 20 to 80 balls in this game, and usually, six numbers are picked for the win. 

Lottery odds

Let us look at the odds of winning in a particular game. Suppose there is a pool of 50 numbers to pick from. You are just getting started; none of the six numbers have been picked yet. Here’s how you calculate the odds: divide the total number of balls by the total number of balls that will be picked. In this case, divide 50/6; you get 8.33:1. Say two balls are drawn, but you don’t have any luck yet. Now there are 48 balls left and four more picks to go. Then divide 48/4; this time, the odds are 12:1.

Lotto games don’t offer multiple wagers; they are all about one big jackpot. A jackpot can be fixed, as in there is a fixed winning amount that goes to one person holding the lucky ticket. A progressive jackpot begins with a small minimum amount, and the prize money keeps ballooning until someone wins. There can be multiple winners, and they split the amount between them.

When you multiply the odds of individual draws, you get the odds of the lottery. If it were so easy to guess the odds, someone would win the jackpot every week, and the prize wouldn’t build up. If you want more people to buy tickets, the jackpot needs to be massive enough. Also, if cracking the odds is too hard, people will stay away from the tickets. Lottery organizations strive to walk this balance. 

So some states keep changing the total number of balls in the pool to make the odds more uncertain. Sometimes two or more states join hands to organize multi-state lotteries like Powerball or Mega Millions. No doubt, the odds of winning are tough. The biggest amount at stake, $1.537 billion, was won in 2018. The odds of winning were 1 in 302.5 million.

Some states also organize a bonus lotto, where there are two machines to draw numbers from. One machine draws 5 to 6 balls from a pool of 20-80 like in a regular lottery. The other one has a smaller number of balls, and only one number is picked. For example, the Mega Millions lottery offers a big jackpot for picking numbers from 70 balls. A smaller prize is offered for an easy pick from just 25 balls. Bonus games are almost always progressive, and the lottery purse can skyrocket. 

Lotto machines

Lotto machines are designed to draw balls for a lottery. Proven techniques of statistical analysis test the randomness of numbers. To make sure that there is no shady business, the balls in the machine are always visible while mixing and drawing. Everyone present in the room and also live telecast viewers always have the balls within their sight. 

There are two kinds of machines- gravity pick and air mix. In a gravity pick machine, the balls are dropped and mixed into two paddles that spin in opposite directions. There is a sliding door at the bottom of the mixing vessel. The balls tumble down through a transparent tube into a display box. 

The process is micro-managed; an optical sensor detects the movements of the balls and makes sure that only the required number of balls make their way down for reading numbers. Gravity pick machines mostly use solid rubber balls. 

On the other hand, air pick machines use ping pong balls of identical size and weight, painted with numbers. They are mixed together by shooting them up with jets of air. One of the valves opens, and the air blows out some balls. They pass through a few clear tubes and land in a display area. 

However, air pick machines are less preferred because of the 1980 Pennsylvania Lottery scandal. In the Pennsylvania Lottery, balls numbered 4 and 6 were made heavy so that they wouldn’t blow up to the top of the chamber. The conspirators purchased tickets having all possible combinations of 4 and 6 and won $1.8 million. 

Apart from transparency and randomness, there are a bunch of other measures that states take to assure people that the lottery procedures are fair. For example, in New York, they keep several alternate sets of balls and randomly pick one before the drawing. They check the weight of the balls and keep the machines in a locked vault until a day before the lottery. The Oregon State Police provides security services for the event, and a detective is appointed to oversee each drawing. 

What happens to lottery proceeds?

The lump-sum amount that the winner carries home is just half of the actual jackpot figure. The rest usually goes into funding public education. For example, in 2012, the New York Lottery raised $8.5 billion, of which $2.9 billion went to schools. 


In the USA, when you win the lottery, you have to choose between a lump sum amount or a series of annual payouts. Most people choose to take a lump sum amount. 

If you choose annual payouts, the winnings are kept in the form of zero-coupon bonds. These are special US Treasury bonds to make sure that the winnings remain in place. When the bond matures, you get paid a certain amount of money. The longer the wait, the cheaper the bond is. 

For example, the New York Lottery gives out 25 annual payouts if winners choose the serial payments option. Seven different bond brokers quote the best price for a package of bonds. The bonds stay in an investment bank. When a bond matures, it automatically moves to the New York Lottery’s cash account. Then they write you a check. You get some percentage of the amount each year, which rises by a tenth percent every year. 

People often choose to take a lump sum amount because they have the freedom to make better investments than just a 5 percent interest on the bonds. The lottery still asks brokers to quote prices. But the money that the bonds are worth is directly given to the winners all at once.


The winning amount may be further halved after paying taxes. Most US lotteries deduct 24% of taxes from the amount. If the win goes in millions, the tax bracket can go up to 37%. Moreover, there are state and local taxes charged on every win. This is another reason why people prefer a lump sum amount rather than serial payouts; payouts suck up a lot in taxes. 

Unlike in the USA, in Europe, you normally get the whole jackpot wired straight to your bank account in full without any taxes at all!

How does a lottery work?

Lotteries are available in a variety of formats. The prize could be a certain sum of money or commodities, for example. In this model, the organizer is at risk if not enough tickets are sold. The prize fund will most likely be a predetermined percentage of the total receipts. 

Many new lotteries allow lottery ticket buyers to choose their own numbers, perhaps resulting in numerous victors. The “50–50” draw, in which the organizers promise that the reward will equal half of the money, is a typical example.

Is the lottery worth playing?

More than half of US residents together spend more than $1000 on lottery tickets every month. A significant portion of the lottery revenue comes from a small percentage of betters. For example, a study in Minnesota revealed that 71% of the lottery’s income comes from just 20% of the players. 

Similarly, in Pennsylvania, 79% of the income comes from the pockets of 29% of the players. A majority of these people come from low-income backgrounds, spending hard-earned money. It then becomes essential to ask, is the lottery really worth spending on?

Despite what the tantalizing advertisements might say, your chances of winning the lottery are always going to be thin. Looking at the number of people competing for that shiny piece of luck, the chances of you winning are as remote as being struck by lightning or falling planes.

But one person will win the lottery, and it can’t be you if you don’t participate. So, how should you participate? If you are purchasing tickets in different lotteries one after the other, it won’t increase the chances of you winning. A better strategy is to buy multiple tickets in one lottery. But this, too, would push up the odds only a little bit.

Putting money on a lottery can be fun and exciting. As long as one is not struggling financially, it wouldn’t hurt to spend a few pennies on a lottery ticket. A little bit of fun can soon turn into a draining experience if you count on the win to turn your life around. Failures can pull a person down the spiral of obsession or even gambling addiction. Also, there are better forms of investment out there with more educated guesses and more calculated risks.

1 Comment
  1. The PowerBall odds are 1 in 292 million, being struck by lightning is 1 in 18000.

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