The Lottery is Not Just a Game

A game in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are awarded to those whose numbers are drawn at random; sometimes used as a method of raising money for a state or other organization. Also used as a general term for any event or situation whose outcome depends on chance: He considered life a lottery.

The lottery has become a fixture of American culture, with people spending upward of $100 billion on tickets each year. Some state officials even promote lotteries as ways to reduce deficits. But those dollars are not coming free: they come at the expense of low-income and working-class Americans, who lose a great deal more than they win. The money spent on lottery tickets isn’t just a waste of time and cash; it also diverts attention away from the pursuit of wealth through hard work, as prescribed by the Bible: “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring riches” (Proverbs 23:5).

In fact, the vast majority of lottery revenue comes from just 10 percent of players. These super-users, who buy multiple tickets weekly or every week, generate up to 70 to 80 percent of total lottery sales, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. These players are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. And for many of them, playing the lottery is more than just a way to kill time: It’s a lifestyle.

I’ve talked to lottery players who play the games for years, spending $50 or $100 a week. Their stories defy the expectations you might have going into the conversation, which are that they’re irrational and don’t know that the odds of winning are bad. Instead, they’ve figured out quote-unquote systems — about lucky numbers and stores and times of day — that are entirely unfounded by statistical reasoning. They know that the odds of winning are long, but they’re willing to put in the effort to make the most of their chances.

Despite the ubiquity of the lottery in the United States, not all states support it. In fact, a handful of them have actually banned the practice altogether. This may be because of public concern about the morality and effectiveness of a system that relies on chance to raise money. But more importantly, it’s because of the lack of evidence that the money raised by the lottery is actually benefiting society.

A recent article in HuffPost’s Highline tells the story of a couple in their 60s who made nearly $27 million over nine years by using a simple strategy. They bought thousands of tickets at a time, in bulk, to improve their odds. The strategy is based on the idea that, for an individual player, the entertainment value of a ticket is likely to outweigh the disutility of a monetary loss. The same logic applies to other types of gambling, such as betting on sports or horse races.