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Magic Numbers: How to Tilt the Odds of Winning the Lottery, or Powerball Jackpot, in Your Favor

by | Jul 22, 2023

Lottery photo from Davidson website.

Author: Jay Pfeifer

Last week’s top prize for the Powerball lottery soared to $1 billion, with a cash option of $516.8 million for the lucky winner in California. And while Powerball will be starting over, the next Megamillions drawing is already over $820 million.

But actually bringing home the big check in any lottery is next to impossible. The odds are about one in 300 million.

Yeah, it’s a longshot.

Tim Chartier, Joseph R. Morton Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science

But according to Math Professor Tim Chartier, there are some small actions that tip those long odds (slightly) in your favor.

How unlikely is it to win a lottery like Mega Millions or Powerball?

One way to visualize it: It’s equivalent to flipping heads on a coin 28 times in a row.

Another way to think about it: This is akin to my looking back at the past nine years, picking one second, and then asking you to guess which second I chose. The odds that you’ll get it right are incredibly long.

Does buying more tickets increase your odds?

Yes. If you buy five tickets with different numbers, you are five times more likely to win than buying just one. But, keep in mind, this is like saying you need to flip heads 28 straight times. Try it. In fact, try it five times. Try it 100 times. You are amazingly unlikely to get it any single time. So, the odds are more likely but still very unlikely.

Here is an app that lets you simulate flipping a coin 28 times. (Note, you need to select ‘Number’ to be 28.). You could do this yourself with 28 coins–toss them and see!

You are almost 300 times more likely to get hit by lightning in your lifetime than win Mega Millions. If you bought 300 tickets, only then would you have the same chances as getting hit by lightning in your lifetime.

Why don’t lotteries like Mega Millions and Powerball produce winners more frequently?

We will get a winner at some point, which is the exciting part. But, there is some math behind the growing jackpot.

First, people can pick numbers–and they tend to pick numbers from a similar range. People frequently pick birthdays and ages, which makes lower numbers more common.

Second, while someone will win, it simply can take time given how unlikely it is. The odds are made high enough to make the game compelling and get winners JUST enough that we have hope in the improbable and, frankly, it makes it fun.

When the jackpot is this high what should we think about?

Any time you play a lottery like Mega Millions or Powerball, the odds of winning stay the same. But, there are ways that you can make it more probable that you win ALL the money.

In particular, pick random numbers. If you pick your favorite number or the day of your birthday like the 7th, which is the day of the next drawing, many people can be doing the same and that puts a lot of numbers between 1 and 31. Picking your own numbers doesn’t change the odds of winning. But, picking random numbers does increase the odds that if you win, no one else wins.

Should we stay away from numbers that were in the last drawing?

The balls are random so there is a very slim chance that a number will repeat–in the neighborhood of 3 or 4%. But, don’t forget: You have the same chance that any other ball is chosen, too.


News of Davidson Editors’ Note: We are aware that “playing the lottery” can be addictive. For that reason, we felt that it was important to add the following to this article.



The National Council on Problem Gambling operates the National Problem Gambling Helpline Network. The network is a single national access point to local resources for those seeking help for a gambling problem. The network consists of 28 contact centers that provide resources and referrals for all 50 states and US territories. Help is available 24/7 and is 100% confidential.

The National Problem Gambling Helpline Network also includes text and chat services. These features enable those who are gambling online or on their mobile phone to access help the same way they play. One call, text, or chat will get you to problem gambling help anywhere in the U.S. 24/7/365.

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