There’s a lot going on behind the scenes of lottery draws. There’s the money, of course—but also, more importantly, a lot that we don’t talk about, namely, how gambling relates to our national obsession with unimaginable wealth and our diminishing sense of opportunity. The irony is that the rise of lotteries, in which people pay to guess numbers in hopes of winning cash prizes, occurred in a period when the national promise that hard work would enable children to better their parents’ financial situation eroded and the gap between rich and poor widened.
Lotteries sprang from a long tradition of casting lots. They were common in the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan) and the Bible, where they were used for everything from determining who should get to keep Jesus’ clothes after his crucifixion to choosing who would become the king of Israel. In the seventeenth century, private lotteries flourished in England and then spread to the American colonies, even though Protestant clergy urged their followers to abstain from all forms of gambling.
In the early days of lotteries, people bought tickets in order to win a prize, but the proceeds were normally devoted to public purposes. For example, the town records of Ghent and Utrecht mention lotteries to raise funds to build town fortifications or to help the poor. In the fourteen-hundreds, Elizabeth I chartered the first state-sponsored lottery to provide “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realm.”
Today, the prizes in a lotto are more likely to be a subsidized apartment or a place at a top-rated public school than a hefty sum of cash. But the fundamental logic of lottery rules remains the same. A hefty prize attracts ticket-holders, who must deduct costs for organizing the lottery and profit for its sponsors before the remainder is available for prizes. So the big question is whether states and their sponsors can balance the need to distribute a large number of smaller prizes with the desire to draw in people who will bet on the jackpot prize.
To maximize your chances of winning, try to avoid picking numbers that are clustered together. This is a mistake that many people make, and it can significantly decrease your odds of winning. Instead, try to cover a wide range of numbers, and try different patterns. For example, Richard Lustig, a lottery winner who has won seven times in two years, says that he avoids picking numbers that end with the same digit. In addition to that, he recommends using a combinatorial template to find the best number combinations.