Taking another look at the California Lottery

What are the odds of winning the lottery? If the lottery is a 49/6 game (i.e. choosing 6 numbers out of 49 numbers), the odds are 1 in 14 million (one in 13,983,816 to be precise). I would like to show you that for the California Lottery, the odds of winning a jackpot of $1 million or more are 1 in 36 million. Let me show you how I arrive at this estimate.

Statistics about winning tickets are available from the official website of the California Lottery. But one has to do some digging to get the data (I searched at the Lucky Retailer Search). There are 58 counties in California. I simply searched for the 58 counties one by one. Only 28 of the counties had winning tickets. Since the inception of the California Lottery 25 years ago, there were 247 winning tickets as of November 1, 2010.

Here’s the summary information. All of these 247 tickets paid out $1 million or more. The largest jackpot was $110 million. The earliest winning ticket was on 3/21/1987, bought from a retailer in Imperial County. The most recent one was on 10/9/2010, bought from a retailer in Ventura County. The sum of all the winning amounts for these 247 tickets was $4,535,519,264 (about $4.5 billion). Thus each winning ticket prize was, on average, $18,362,426 (about $18 million).

So there are about 250 winning tickets that paid $1 million or more in the 25 years of history of the California Lottery. On average, there were about 10 winners a year. If you do not think that the odds are infinitesimally small, read on.

By law, the California Lottery has to pay out at least 50% of the revenue as winning. The total winning amount for these 247 tickets was $4.5 billion. This implies that the $4.5 billion in winnings was paid out from the sales of $9 billion worth of tickets (equivalently 9 billion tickets since the ticket price was $1).

So out of 9 billion tickets bought, there were about 250 winners. Thus the odds of winning are 250 in 9 billion or 1 in 0.036 billion (9/250=0.036). The odds of 1 in 36 million followed from the following translation.

\text{1 billion = 1,000,000,000 (1 followed by 9 zeros)}
\text{0.036 billion} = 0.036 \times 1,000,000,000=36,000,000 \text{ (36 million)}

Of course, the California Lottery will never tell you that the odds of winning the big prizes are 1 in 36 million. One has to dig to find the information like I did. In fact, in the same page where I did the digging, they claim that “Since 1985, the California Lottery has distributed more than $27 Billion in winnings (including annuitized) with more than 2,842,467,062 winning tickets sold!

They claim that there were 2,842,467,062 (2.8 billion) winning tickets since 1985. How does this number squared with the 247 tickets that I found? I wrote about this point in a previous post called Shining a light on the California Lottery. Except for 247 tickets, these tickets paid out small prizes (on average just under $10). Their information is correct but can give the impression that there are many millionaires running around (could be as many as half the world’s population)!

The usual refrain of many lotto players is that you have to buy a ticket in order to win. Winning is desirable for sure. In the case of mega lotto jackpot such as the games of Mega Million and SuperLottoPlus in the California Lottery, you have to buy millions of tickets before you have a realistic chance of winning (could very well be 36 million tickets). If you treat the game of lottery as a money making opportunity or a way to become an instant millionaire, you better count the cost. Some play the lottery for its entertainment value and the excitement. If you spend a small sum every week buying tickets for the huge jackpots, the entertainment value is about the only benefit you will receive from playing.

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