Tips for Playing Lotto



1 in 45,057,474 - that’s the odds of winning the jackpot in Lotto, the UK’s national lottery draw. It’s the odds of correctly guessing all 6 balls, drawn out of 59 possible numbers.

It used to be 1 in about 14 million, which is bad enough, but back in October 2015 the jackpot became 3x harder to win with the addition of 10 extra balls to choose from.

Lotto claimed the change would make it “more exciting” for players. They need to get out more. They also said there would be bigger prizes and more frequent rollovers. Of course, on this they were right – because with an average 14 million players each week and a 1 in 45 million chance of winning, there’s going to be a lot of rollover weeks.

The chances of winning are miniscule, deceptively low, too tiny to comprehend, but since the draw began in 1994 over 3,500 winners have become instant millionaires. In those 3,500 winners are many people, just like us, with backgrounds like ours, and stories like ours, who took a chance, bought a ticket, and won.

It’s a great example of the availability bias, where we believe something is more likely because we can vividly recall an example of when it happened. We see the winners’ excited faces, holding an oversized cheque for the press photographs and wonder what we would do with all that money if one day we won too. It’s no surprise that we believe that our chances of winning are so high.

If you still feel the need to play, I have three excellent tips for you:

1. Don’t use numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

It’s true they are just as likely as any other combination of six numbers to be drawn, but, according to Lotto, about 10,000 people choose them each week just to make a point and if these numbers ever did come up, your share of the jackpot would be pretty tiny. That would be a real waste of good luck.

2. If you must buy ticket, make it a Euromillions tickets on a Tuesday.

Both Lotto and Euromillions have a £1million raffle with every draw. One ticket drawn at random wins £1million. The odds of winning the raffle are of course based on the number of players, the fewer the players the better your chances. So you want to choose the draw with the least number of players which is the Tuesday Euromillions draw. In fact, you want to buy your Tuesday ticket immediately after a huge jackpot as been won on a Friday because people buy fewer tickets when the jackpot is smaller. Did I mention the Euromillions jackpot? Forget about the jackpot itself, the odds of that are 1 in 116,000,000.

3. Don’t use the same numbers every week.

There are people who have used the same line of numbers every week for the last 20+ years, since it began in 1994, and whilst they have probably long passed the point where they think they will actually win the jackpot, they are terrified of missing even a single draw, in the belief that the one time they don’t buy their ticket will be the week their numbers finally come up. If you use the same numbers every week those numbers will become etched in your memory and you won’t be able to not know if you would have won.

Lotto used to only be drawn on a Saturday. When they added the Wednesday draw people said they wouldn’t do both… but they did, because what if their numbers came up on a Wednesday? Lotto increased the price per line from £1 to £2 and people said they would reduce the number of lines they played. But which set of numbers to lose? Especially if you chose your numbers for emotional reasons, such as your children’s birthdays. (Which of your children is the luckiest? Which do you love the most??)

I personally know people who still take part in workplace Lotto syndicates years after retirement or moving to a new company because they are convinced the syndicate will win the moment they leave it.

Let me reiterate… there are people who feel panicked into buying lottery tickets each week, who keep paying into old syndicates and who can’t give up any lines of numbers… not because they think they will actually win, but because they don’t know how they will cope with the knowledge they would have that they could have won, but didn’t win, money they didn’t expect to win anyway!!

But they aren’t motivated into action by this little statistic... according to Cancer Research UK 1 in 2 people born after 1960 in the UK will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime. 1 in 2!! And 41% of these cases are preventable, through changes in lifestyle behaviour, such as increasing physical activity, eating a healthier diet and quitting smoking.

Let me visualise that for you.

The large white circle in the left illustration represents the 1 in 2 chance of developing some form of cancer in your life if you were born after 1960 in the UK. The blue circle within it illustrates how many of those cancers are preventable, how we can improve our odds by adjusting our behaviour. The tiny white circle on the right represents your chance of winning the lotto jackpot if you buy 10 tickets twice per week, every week for the next 30 years. (It’ll cost you £60,000 too).

Other than entertaining ourselves with humans’ poor grasp of probability, where am I going with this? Many headline messages on campaigns, news stories and policy announcements are based on probabilities. We are told the likelihood of developing cancer, or heart disease, or diabetes, and the percentage we can improve our odds by changing our behaviour and so on. I see and hear it all the time. It’s been the staple approach of public health campaigning for the last 40 years and it doesn’t seem to be working.

Do you try to persuasively use odds and chance to get people using your services? We’re pretty rubbish at understanding them. Can you think of a better approach?

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