How to Win the Lottery

The lottery is one of the most popular pastimes in America, and the jackpots of recent years have become astronomical. But, as one recent Huffington Post article pointed out, winning the lottery isn’t as easy as buying a ticket and waiting for your numbers to come up. If you want to win big you’ll need to be prepared to do some work—and risk a little of your own money.

But if you’re willing to do the work, there are ways to improve your odds of winning. The first step is understanding the rules of lottery play: how to pick winning numbers. A few rules of thumb: pick as many different numbers as you can, avoid repeating a single number, and keep your tickets organized. Then there are the more sophisticated strategies: buying tickets in bulk, picking multiple numbers at once to increase your chances of hitting a jackpot, and even investing in lottery shares.

Lotteries are a centuries-old practice, dating back to the Roman Empire (Nero was a huge fan) and attested to in the Bible, where the casting of lots helped decide everything from who got the king’s throne to who would be executed for treason. But the modern incarnation of state-run lotteries began in the nineteen-sixties, when a national tax revolt against anything that smelled like a hidden tax prompted state governments to look for ways to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

As Cohen points out, the proliferation of the lottery is a reflection of America’s obsession with unimaginable wealth and, by extension, the dream that winning the lottery will make you rich. But this frenzy for riches, which reached its zenith in the eighties, coincided with a decline in the economic security of working people: income inequality widened, pensions and health-care benefits eroded, and the American promise that hard work would pay off in the form of a comfortable retirement and an inheritance for your children faded.

In order to boost lottery revenues, states legislated a monopoly for themselves, created public agencies to run the games, and started small, with only a few simple games. Over time, though, the games have grown in scope and complexity. This expansion has been driven in large part by competition among the states for lottery dollars.

But it’s also been driven by the success of private firms, which have figured out how to maximize profits by marketing the games to specific groups. These targeted advertising efforts, as well as the lottery’s emphasis on growing super-sized jackpots that generate enormous publicity, put state lotteries at cross purposes with the larger public interest, as they promote gambling and encourage irresponsible spending. The result, as Cohen argues, is that the lottery has been at war with America’s broader moral vision for decades. It’s a fight that isn’t going to end anytime soon.