How to Get Started Playing the Lottery (Even if You’ve Never Played Before)


There’s nothing new about playing the lottery. In fact, it’s probably one of the oldest gambling activities in the world. It’s also one of the most accepted gambling activities. The only gambling game I can think of that’s more socially acceptable is bingo.

But believe it or not, some people have never played the lottery.

This post is for them.

I’m not convinced that playing the lottery is the best idea in the world. I’ll cover some of the facts you should consider before buying that first ticket in one of the sections below.

I’ll also cover the basics of how to play the various lottery games that are usually available, regardless of where you live.

1 – Decide Whether You Really Want to Play the Lottery or Not

I’ve written about my negative feelings about the lottery before, so let me just say right up front that I’m not encouraging you to play the lottery. I think you should consider other gambling activities instead.

The lottery offers some of the worst odds in gambling. When you talk about games like slot machines, you usually look at the payback percentage. That’s the long-term predicted results measured as the percentage of your money you’ll get returned to you.


In other words, if you bet $1.00 on a gambling game with a payback percentage of 85%, you’d expect to win back $0.85 every time you place that bet.

But that’s an average—not something you’d see every spin.

In fact, it would be impossible to see that result on a single spin.

And the reason that games like slot machines and video poker use payback percentage instead of house edge is that they pay off on an “X for Y” basis instead of an “X to Y” basis.

Here’s the difference:

When you play blackjack and put up a bet of $100 and win, you get your bet back plus your winnings.

When you play a slot machine game and place a bet of $5 and win, you get your winnings back, but the machine keeps your original $5.

Lottery tickets work the same way—they pay out on an “X for Y” basis.

But that’s a little bit of a digression. The important point is that the payback percentage for lottery tickets generally averages about 50%.

Even the worst slot machines are considerably better than that.

The worst slot machines have a payback percentage of 65% or 75%.

If you stick with slot machines in major casinos or online, the payback percentage is higher, because there’s more competition for your business.

Payback percentages in the 92% to 94% range are common at Las Vegas Strip casinos.

So the odds when playing the lottery are just awful for the player.

  • Lottery Payback Percentage: About 50%
  • Worst Slots Payback Percentage: 65 – 75%
  • Online casinos are generally higher due to high competition
  • Las Vegas Casino Avg Payback Percentage: 92 – 94%

Also, I have other reasons for refusing to play the lottery. I don’t believe that the state government belongs in the gambling business at all. Leave that to private enterprise.

Also, lottery proponents claim that the funds generated from the lottery fund education, but that’s not true most of the time. Most states which legalize the lottery wind up giving lots of corporate incentives.

In other words, the lottery funds the state subsidy of big business.

It doesn’t help the poor at all.

I’m reminded of a story, though:

This guy was playing in a poker game, and he complained constantly about how bad the game was. One of his friends asked him why he continued to play if it was so awful

Because it’s the only game in town, he replied.

That’s the case with the lottery sometimes. It’s the only gambling game in town.

2 – Think About What Kind of Lottery Game You Want to Play

You should consider which kind of lottery game you might enjoy the most. They all fall into more or less the same categories.

The Lotto

The lotto is what most people think of when they think of the lottery. This is the game with the big drawing twice a week. You pick 6 numbers, and if you hit all 6, you win the big jackpot.

You can win smaller prizes for getting 3, 4, or 5 numbers right, too.

You can buy a lotto ticket at most convenience stores and grocery stores. At one time, you could play the lotto for just $1, but it’s gone up to $2 in most places.

You can, of course, buy multiple tickets for the same drawing.

A Little Lotto

A little lotto is like the lotto, only with a smaller jackpot and more frequent drawings. You’ll often have fewer numbers to choose, too, and a smaller selection of numbers to choose from. Most little lotto games use 5 numbers instead of 6.

In states that offer a little lotto, the drawings happen almost every day. The prizes are smaller, but you’re also more likely to win.

Pick 3 and Pick 4 Games

Pick 3 and Pick 4 games are also called daily games because they have drawings every day. (Make sense, right?) Gameplay is simpler, too—you just pick a 3-digit number or a 4-digit number. (The lowest possible number is 000 or 0000, and the highest is 999 or 9999.)

You get to choose HOW you want to play this game, too. You can choose from the following options:

  • Exact order
  • Any order
  • Exact/any
  • Combination

If you choose any order, you win if your 3 digits show up, even if they’re out of order. If choose exact order, the digits must be drawn in the same order. The payoff for the exact order is, of course, higher.

If you choose exact/any, you get paid off for either the exact order or the “any” order. It’s basically just placing both those bets.

Finally, if you choose combination than you’ve chosen all possible bets.

I should point out that Pick 3 and Pick 4 games are different from lotto games, too. The size of the jackpot in the lotto or little lotto games is based on the number of tickets sold. That jackpot grows from week to week, too, as long as the jackpot hasn’t been won.

But the Pick 3 and Pick 4 games have fixed payouts based on the odds for that particular game.

For Example

The odds of picking 3 digits in order are 1000 to 1, while the odds of picking 4 digits in order are 10,000 to 1. The payouts, though, are $500 or $5000, giving the game a 50% edge over the player.

Mega Millions and Powerball

Mega Millions and Powerball are multi-state games. They’re like the lotto, only the jackpots are larger and the odds of winning are lower. These are where the biggest jackpots are, in fact, the ones which are in the $xxx million range. The odds of winning, though, are, of course, astronomical.

Scratch Off Games

Scratch off games are hugely popular, too, because you get instant results, just like you would if you were playing a slot machine. The cards are colorful and covered in a special kind of ink.

You just scratch the ink off to find out whether you’ve won. You’ll see new scratch-off games introduced periodically, too. This is important, and I’ll have more to say about that soon.

The themes for these games are similar to the themes for slot machines. Holiday themes are popular, as are games based on board games and bingo games.

Your odds of winning aren’t bad, but the payouts are low, so the payback percentage is still in that 50% range. Scratch-offs can often be bought for as little as $1 per ticket, but you can also find more expensive tickets. They usually pay off at 50 for 1 at the most.

3 – Go Ahead and Use the Quick Picks

When you buy a lottery ticket where there’s a drawing—which is basically all of them except the scratch-off tickets—you have 2 options:

  • You can choose your numbers.
  • You can use a machine to provide you with randomly chosen “quick picks.”

You should just go ahead and use the quick picks. There’s no advantage to choosing your own numbers. It doesn’t change the odds.


One thing to consider when choosing lottery numbers is that some numbers get picked more than others. Birthdays are a popular way to choose lottery numbers, for example.

Here’s the problem with that.

Numbers like 1-12 and 1-31 get picked more often than statistically random choices would be, so the probability of having to share the prize money with someone else using the same strategy goes up.

If I’m going to play the lottery, on the really outside chance that I’m going to win, I sure don’t want to share the prize with someone else.

Also, some conspiracy-minded types might think your odds of winning are lower if you use the quick picks. They suspect that the lottery folks don’t want to pay out the winners.

They don’t seem to understand how the prize money in the lottery works.

Imagine if you were running a private lottery. How would you make money with it?

For Example

Let’s say you sold 1000 tickets for $1 each.

If you offered $750 as your top prize, you’d make a $250 profit, right?

There wouldn’t be any need to cheat.

The states pay out 50% of the ticket sales as the jackpot. They have even less incentive to cheat than you do.

This is also the reason the jackpots continue to grow week after week when the jackpots haven’t been in. They’re investing a percentage of the ticket sales into the jackpot.

If no one ever won the lottery, they wouldn’t be able to stay in business. No one would ever buy tickets.

There’s just no incentive to rig the quick pick system versus the selection of the numbers, so you might as well just save yourself some time and effort choosing numbers

4 – Join or Start a Lottery Pool

One of the most popular ways to play the lottery is to join or form a pool of players. You wind up buying tickets as a group, and if any of those tickets win, the group gets to split the prize money. This increases the probability of winning, but it reduces the payout.

The payback percentage, of course, stays the same.

Be sure if you get involved with a lottery pool you take normal precautions. There should be something in writing outlining the details of who is in the pool and how much each person is contributing. It should also include what percentage of the prize money each member gets.

Don’t make the mistake of letting people buy in for different amounts. The math gets too complicated, and lottery pools should be fun, quick, and easy. Decide on a buy-in like $10 per person, and stick with that.

Whoever buys the lottery tickets should immediately make photocopies and distribute them to everyone in the pool. This prevents any kind of cheating.

In the past, people have run lottery pools where they also bought their own tickets. There was confusion about which tickets were bought on behalf of the individual as opposed to which tickets were bought for the pool, and it created big problems.

These kinds of problems don’t come up often, because most people don’t win the lottery, even if they’re playing as part of a lottery pool.

But when problems this big do come up, they’re a huge pain.

Luckily, these problems are easily avoided by a couple of simple steps—a written agreement with names and buy-ins, and by providing the photocopies of the tickets that were bought.

5 – Don’t Bother with Silly Lottery Systems like Matrices

When you’re dealing with negative expectation bets—and a lottery ticket certainly qualifies—you’ll find plenty of people offering betting systems that are supposed to turn the odds the other way. These betting systems never give you an edge.

With lottery games, one of the most popular betting systems involves using some kind of lottery matrix. This is also called a “lottery wheel.”

Here’s how that works:

The goal is to get a subset of the lottery numbers across multiple tickets. If some of the draws contain numbers within this subset, it’s supposed to give you a better probability of winning.

You’ll often see proponents of such systems claim that they win the lottery “week after week.” If you think about that claim for a minute, you’ll realize it couldn’t possibly be true.

Here’s an example of how a lottery wheel might work in a pick 3 game. You start by choosing 5 numbers. For the sake of this example, we’ll assume you chose the following numbers:

1 – 2 – 4 – 8 – 9

You’re going to buy 10 tickets, each of which is going to use a combination of these numbers, as follows:

  • 1 – 2 – 4
  • 1 – 2 – 8
  • 1 – 2 – 9
  • 1 – 4 – 8
  • 1 – 4 – 9
  • 1 – 8 – 9
  • 2 – 4 – 8
  • 2 – 4 – 9
  • 2 – 8 – 9
  • 4 – 8 – 9

If you look at those numbers closely, you’ll see that you’ve captured every possible 3-digit combination of those 5 numbers.

You can find all kinds of elaborate boxing and wheeling systems like this, all of which have the same goal.

The problem is that none of these systems do anything to actually help you win the lottery.

It’s all just voodoo.

My advice is to just buy 10 quick picks and save yourself some trouble.

6 – Stick with the Scratch Cards

The payback percentage for scratch cards is 60% or more. That’s awful when compared to a slot machine with a 75% or higher payback percentage, but it’s better than the payback percentage for the big lottery games.

Scratch cards have a lot in common with slot machine games, too. When you’re playing slots, the higher the denomination the machine is, the better the payback percentage is. This is a general rule of thumb, so you should play the highest-limit slot machine games you can afford.

This is also true of scratch-off lottery games. The more expensive the scratch-off ticket, the better the odds are.

I have one caveat, though:

Don’t play above your bankroll just to try to get a higher payback percentage. You should never gamble with money you can’t afford to lose.

This advice holds true for both slot machine players and scratch-off players.

Finally, if a game has a trademark, the payback percentage will be lower.

Can you guess why?

Trademarks, by definition, cost money to use. Where do you think that money comes from?

They take it directly off the payback percentage for the game. That’s the only place the money COULD come from.

So here are your quick lottery tips:

  • Play scratch off games.
  • Play for the highest stakes you can.
  • Don’t play a game with an obvious license on a trademark.

7 – Card Counting for Lottery Players

Finally, I’ve read speculation that you can play scratch offs with an edge some of the time.

Here’s how:

Scratch off tickets, by their nature, have a specific number of tickets printed with each prize amount, including the big jackpot amounts.

There’s no way to guess where in the batch the big jackpot ticket is to be found.

Someone might win the biggest jackpot or 2 early in the release of the game. Someone might, on the other hand, not win until almost all the cards have been sold.

If you pay attention to whether the big jackpot has been hit, you can create a positive expectation bet by only buying tickets for that game toward the end of the game’s lifespan.

This works similarly to card counting in blackjack. When you’re playing blackjack, you’re tracking the number of 10s and aces in the deck.

When you’re playing scratch-off tickets in the lottery, you want to buy tickets when there’s a higher percentage of large prize tickets left in unsold.


Playing the lottery is a negative expectation bet.

Worse, it has a much bigger disadvantage for the gambler than almost any other gambling game. Even slot machines usually have a payback percentage of 75% or higher.

But even the best lottery games only offer a payback percentage of 60%.

And most of the lottery games have a lower payback percentage than that.

If you want to get started playing the lottery, my first suggestion is to think really hard about what kind of gambling you want to participate in.

I don’t play the lottery much. I prefer poker, where I have at least the possibility of getting a positive expectation situation.

If you do decide to play the lottery, be smart about it. Start by learning which games are available and how they work. Then think about what your goals are.

Considering a lottery pool makes sense for many players.

Sticking with scratch cards might be the best strategy, though, as scratch cards have a lower advantage for the house.

No matter what you decide, remember to never gamble with money you can’t afford to lose. This applies to the lottery just as much as it applies to other gambling games.

Petko Stoyanov
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About Petko Stoyanov
My name is Petko Stoyanov, and I've been a gambling writer for more than ten years. I guess that was the natural path for me since I've loved soccer and card games for as long as I can remember! I have a long and fairly successful history with English Premier League betting and online poker, but I follow many other sports. I watch all big European soccer leagues, basketball, football, and tennis regularly, and I keep an eye on snooker, volleyball, and major UFC events.