Smart Money

Lottery mania is on the way, but stay cool and follow these tips. You may not strike it rich, but you can be a better player.

June 1992By Comments

As the Texas Lottery blasts into orbit this month, you may find yourself wondering whether you will succumb to its siren song of instant wealth. Stop kidding yourself. The question is not if you will play, but how much money you will spend and how often you will spend it. Surveys in other states with lotteries show that 80 percent of the adult population has played at least once. What matters is playing smart.

Most people assume that they can’t do anything to improve their chances of winning, but they’re wrong. You can become a better lottery player. Ten of the many ways to augment your success are explained below. None of them will guarantee you a multimillion-dollar jackpot, but they may help you win a little more often, and they will definitely keep you from losing as much.


Don’t spend more than one percent of your income on the lottery—max. You may well find yourself tempted to increase your chances by buying beaucoup lottery tickets. But no ordinary person could ever buy enough tickets to guarantee a win. Consider this: The most common lotto game has 14 million betting combinations, so if you buy 1 ticket, the odds will be 1 in 14 million. If you buy 50 tickets, the odds will be 50 in 14 million. Does that sound much better? Only 1 in 54 tickets wins any prize at all. So don’t spend yourself into the poorhouse.

There is no correct or best or normal amount to bet. Annual lottery sales per person vary around the country from just $30 a year in Kansas to more than $250 in Massachusetts. Limiting your spending to one percent is a good rule of thumb. If you make $25,000 a year, that works out to $250 a year, or about $5 a week—plenty of opportunity for thrills and chills without breaking your budget.

The best game plan is to play for the fun of it and for your dreams, not because you seriously believe that you’re going to win. (Being certain that you’re going to beat the lottery is a little like hitting yourself in the head with a ball peen hammer and being certain that it won’t hurt—except hitting yourself in the head with a hammer doesn’t cost a buck a whack.)

The lottery is supposed to be entertainment, and the one percent limit will help you keep it that way. Remember: It only takes one ticket to win.


Don’t spend all your lottery money the first week; the odds will get better. The first Texas Lottery game, Lone Star Millions, is an instant scratch-off game. It’s easy to play and just as easy to lose. You buy a ticket for $1 from a lottery vendor and scratch off the latex coating that conceals dollar amounts printed in six small squares. If three of those amounts match, you win that much. Odds and prizes range from 1 in 10 to win $2 to 1 in 600,000 to win $10,000. The overall odds of winning any prize are 1 in 7.9. That’s not exactly a consumer bargain, and it won’t be long before players figure that out and tire of having only one chance of winning in every eight plays.

Early burnout has been anticipated by the Texas Lottery’s advertising and operations contractors, who are mas-ters of marketing and lottery strategy. As sales fall off, they plan to introduce new games with better odds to keep play-ers interested.

So while you may be tempted to bet heavily in the first two games because they will offer $1 million grand prizes, you should consider holding off. The third and fourth games—scheduled to be introduced simultaneously late this summer—will offer a double-prize feature and a higher overall percentage of winners. Eventually, up to six different instant games will be offered at any one time.

The main thing to remember is to watch the payout odds—which will be printed on the game brochures available at all 15,000 initial ticket outlets. These odds will change with each game, and you might as well concentrate on those that offer you the best chance of winning. Many states now offer instant games with very decent 1 in 4 overall odds, and so will Texas. Watch for them.


Don’t throw away a million bucks. If you scratch off an instant ticket and find three windows showing the word “Entry” instead of a dollar amount, don’t worry; you haven’t lost. In fact, you have a chance to win big. Write your name and address on the back of the ticket and mail it to the Texas Lottery (the address is also on the back). Twelve drawings will be held in various locations throughout the state, and the lucky winner will get $1,000,000.

What are your chances? Of 300 million tickets in game one, 500,000 will be Entry tickets. That may not sound great, but remember: Not everyone who gets an Entry ticket will go to the trouble of mailing it in. That will increase the chances of those who do, so keep sending those tickets in.


Play for free. Pay attention to the promotions that may be offered by the lottery and by ticket vendors. For instance, many retailers may offer “Ask for the Sale” promotions, in which you get a free ticket if the clerk forgets to ask if you would like to buy one. Participating service stations will also be allowed to give away free tickets with a fill-up of gas, and food stores can give free tickets for buying turkeys at Thanksgiving (and what better symbol for a bunch of die-hard lottery players than a bunch of frozen turkeys?). Don’t pass up a free opportunity.


Don’t waste your money on worthless lotto systems. This fall we will see the introduction of the big game with the giant jackpots—lotto, which is based on a centuries-old gambling game that originated in Italy. The Lottery Commission has yet to decide on the specifics, but the game will probably be a 6/49 or 6/50 lotto. This takes a minute to explain, so bear with me: On each ticket, 49 or 50 numbers are printed; these numbers are called the field. From the field, a player selects 6 numbers, called his pick. Every Saturday night on live TV—possibly in the commercial slot just before the ten o’clock news—the Texas Lottery will use a special machine filled with Ping-Pong balls bearing printed numbers to pick the six winning numbers.

Given the size of the potential prize—you may remember Florida’s $106.5 million—and the devastating odds against winning—1 in 14 million for 6/49 lotto; 1 in 16 million for 6/50—everyone wants a system. This is where you want to be cautious. Hundreds of overpriced schemes are on the market: pocket calculators, computer software, even lotto biorhythm charts, all ballyhooed as ways to pick winning numbers.

And those are the more plausible scams. Once the lottery really gets going here, you can expect a cottage industry to spring up offering to convert your birthday, your astrological sign, and even more arcane phenomena, like dates of sightings of the Loch Ness monster, into mystical numbers that you can use to play lotto. Anyone who claims to be able to see the future of a lotto drawing and offers to sell you that information for $50 or $100 must be generous indeed.

Worst of all, many mathematical systems can cost a bundle. Some of them (many are sold through the mail) involve using eight, nine, or ten numbers in complex betting combinations that necessitate spending $20, $50, or $100 a week on lotto.

Taking these methods seriously is just asking for trouble. Don’t spend big money on any system to pick your numbers. Your odds are better if you put your money into tickets.


Don’t play frequently bet numbers. Since there is no sure way to make lotto predictions, the most logical tactic is to avoid sharing a jackpot in case your numbers are drawn.

Research shows that many if not most players select low numbers. Why? Because they choose from the same small group of numbers based on dates like birthdays and anniversaries. That means the numbers 1 through 12 (the months), 1 through 31 (the days), and the number 19 (the century) are all overplayed. Of those, 3, 7, and 11, all considered to be lucky, are really overused.

Another factor favoring low numbers is that people marking play slips often make all six choices before they get above the twenties or thirties. In one drawing of the Maryland Lottery, 3,200 people played the numbers 1 through 6. If those numbers had been chosen, the winners would have had to split the $620,000 jackpot and would have won less than $200 each. Conclusion: Play at least some high numbers.


You can win with Quik Picks. The simplest way to pick your numbers may well be the best: Let the computer do it for you. All you have to do is tell your clerk at your lotto ticket outlet that you want one or more Quik Picks. He pushes a button, and the machine picks six numbers for you, charging a buck a ticket.

The reason this works is that playing Quik Picks guarantees that you will have random numbers. That way you avoid the pitfalls outlined in TIP 6, and you have less of a chance of sharing a jackpot with all those other people. Surveys in many states show that a majority of jackpot winners were Quik Picks. How can this be? Because the majority of lotto tickets sold were Quik Picks.


Always check the winning lotto numbers against your numbers. Could anybody be dumb enough not to check his numbers? Well, yes. In 1989 a $5.4 million Illinois jackpot went unclaimed for one year, was declared void, and the money was returned to a pool for future prizes. Every lottery state has had similar incidents.

How does this happen? Plenty of people ask the clerk for a lottery ticket and get a lotto Quik Pick instead of the instant ticket they wanted. They stick that ticket in their wallet or purse and forget about it. And if they regularly play Quik Picks instead of playing the same numbers every time, they don’t have the numbers committed to memory, and they must check the current ticket to see if they have won. Digging out the tickets is more trouble, but the rewards could be worth it.

Unclaimed prize money in Texas, you may be glad to hear, also will be returned to the players’ prize pool.


Play lottery pools. Lottery pools are groups of people—family members, neighbors, co-workers—who pool their money to buy more tickets than any of them could afford individually. If any of the tickets wins a prize, everyone shares the money. Whoever organizes the pool collects the money, buys the tickets, and keeps a simple written contract stating that winnings will be divided equally among all members.

Say thirty people chip in $3 a week. Each of them now has ninety opportunities to win a share of the jackpot, and no one has spent a fortune. A $15 million jackpot split among thirty winners would pay each of them $20,000 a year for twenty years, after taxes.

You may have read about a commercial Australian lottery pool called the International Lotto Fund that won $27 million in March by covering all seven million combinations in the Virginia Lottery. Smooth move, but every lottery in the country has since changed its rules to prevent such massive block buying of tickets. That means your own lottery pool at home or at work is still your best chance to win.

TIP 10

Play when the jackpot is high, because so is the value of your bet. When the lotto jackpot is not won for several weeks, a fever grips the land. People who were previously blasé wait in line for hours to buy tickets. The lottery occupies the news, cocktail party conversation, and valuable work time. It is blamed for everything short of causing hens to quit laying.

Some people think that having more players in the game will ruin their odds, but it’s just not so. The odds of winning remain unchanged. The odds of having to share the big prize are higher, but since the jackpot is bigger, that isn’t such a big deal.

Maybe you’ll win, maybe you won’t. The point is that if you play for fun, you can have a few thrills, and if you play smart, you’ll know you’ve done everything you can to boost your chances. It’s like life; the odds are against you, but may the fours be with you.

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