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The Mathematics of Lottery

In a world where public-works projects and school funding are increasingly dependent on revenue from non-tax sources, state governments are turning to the lottery for much needed cash. But critics say that lotteries are more than just another form of gambling and that, as a business with an obligation to maximize revenues, they promote addictive gambling behavior and exert a regressive tax on poorer people.

Historically, states introduce their lotteries by legislating a state monopoly; establishing a state agency or public corporation to manage the lottery; and beginning operations with a modest number of relatively simple games. Then, under pressure to generate more revenues, they progressively expand their games, and the size of the prize pool.

As an alternative to traditional tickets, many people choose to play scratch-off games, where a panel of numbered dots must be scratched off to reveal the prize amount. Usually, these games feature lower prize amounts but with high odds of winning, typically one in four or less. The prizes in these games can range from money to merchandise to trips, vehicles and other valuable items. To entice players, the state often makes special arrangements with merchandising companies to offer products that are associated with celebrities, sports franchises and other popular icons.

The prevailing wisdom among experts on the mathematics of lottery is to pick a combination of low and high numbers, and avoid picking all even or all odd numbers. Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman recommends selecting Quick Picks or numbers with significant dates, like birthdays and anniversaries, to increase your chances of winning.