The Odds of Winning the Lottery Jackpot Are Slim

The Powerball jackpot climbed to $1.4 billion for Saturday night’s drawing. It’s the third-largest jackpot in history. But the odds of winning are slim. It’s much more likely to be struck by lightning or become a multimillionaire by buying lottery tickets than it is to win the Powerball jackpot, according to statisticians. And even those who have won large sums of money often find themselves worse off than before.

Lottery winners can choose to receive a lump sum or annuity payments over decades. But a lump sum has to be taxed all at once, and the amount is smaller than the advertised jackpot. Also, annuity payments don’t grow as fast as the advertised jackpot, because they take into account inflation.

But the prize still draws people who wouldn’t play otherwise. And the larger the jackpot, the more people buy tickets, a kind of self-fulfilling cycle of ticket sales and jackpot growth. That’s why some states adjust formulas and interest rates to try to keep jackpots growing.

Those changes may seem trivial, but it’s an effort to get the odds in line with the number of tickets sold. Otherwise, jackpots would shrink so quickly that someone could win every week. That’s why some states are increasing the number of balls or adding zeros to the odds, which can help keep the jackpot growing after a long run without a winner. That’s not foolproof, though, as a math professor explains. If the number of balls increases to 51, the odds of hitting the jackpot go from one in 300 million to 18.009,460:1. That’s still not very good, but it’s better than nothing.