Over 100 nations sponsor lottery games, in which players select a group of numbers in the hope their picks will match the winning combination. Typically the winning numbers are drawn from a canister of balls with numbers painted on them. The odds of winning any given game vary according to how many numbers will be drawn and how many total numbers are available. Most games are “multi-tiered”, meaning they have lesser prizes for those who guess some of the numbers.

Since the very beginning, players have sought ways to figure out winning numbers, and some have actually had some success. In 1992 a group of businessmen led by Stefan Klincewicz spent over 800,000 pounds to cover most of the possible combinations for the Irish Lottery. They hit the 1.7 million pound jackpot, but had to split it with two other players with winning tickets. Their winnings on the four- and five-number combinations, however, were enough to make the whole enterprise profitable.

It’s unlikely any of us will be trying anything so elaborate, but there are some ways to improve your odds. A little background on the behavior of lotteries and odds in general is needed to understand how these methods work, and can also help you steer clear of “systems” that are more likely to use up your money than win you any.

THEY’RE NOT REALLY NUMBERS

Imagine a lottery where numbers weren’t used at all. Instead the winning balls have symbols like a diamond, a heart, an eye, an “X”, and so on. Players would pick a group of symbols and hope they match up with the winners.

This lottery would work just as well as one that uses numbered balls. But think about this—the symbols have no relation to each other. Unlike numbers, you can’t perform calculations with them and there’s no way to measure “deltas” (the span between winning numbers), groupings, ratios, or orders.

The same is true with the numbers used on the balls. Sure, you can play all sorts of math games with them, but the games are meaningless. The numbers don’t measure anything or affect the lottery outcome in any way, they’re simply well-recognized symbols and nothing more.

That means any system that says numbers must be “distributed” in some way, or spaced in some way, or not be in a sequence, is bull. These distribution and calculation gimmicks would be useless in trying to figure out a system that uses symbols instead of numbers, which means they are useless with numbered balls as well.

ODDS

First of all, if you don’t play the lottery your odds of winning are exactly zero. There is no possible way to win.

Odds are the ratio between a favorable outcome and the unfavorable ones. In the U.S. Powerball lottery, for example, there are over 195,000,000 ways to lose the jackpot, and exactly one way to win it. So the odds are 1-to-195,000,000 (written 1:195,000,000).

Powerball is a multi-tiered lottery with one grand prize and several lesser prizes for matching a few of the winning numbers. It uses five balls drawn from a drum containing 59 balls, and a separate “Powerball” drawn from a drum containing 39 balls.

If you spend five dollars and get a ticket with five combinations, you reduce the odds by a factor of five because five favorable outcomes are now possible. The odds against winning drop to 1:39,000,000.

Now if you played 39 tickets, each with a different Powerball number, you’d be guaranteed that ONE of the Powerballs will match, plus you’ll have 39 different number combinations. This reduces the odds by a factor of 39, making the odds of a big winner in your tickets around 1:5,000,000. This is an enormous improvement.

It also dramatically increases your chances of winning lesser prizes as long as each game is played with a different set of numbers. The odds against hitting the next biggest prize by matching the five main numbers drops from 1:5,000,000 to 1:128,000, and the chance of hitting four numbers plus the Powerball drop from 1:723,000 to 1:18,500

But this requires an investment of almost $80 a week to play every drawing, or over $300 a month. This is quite a bit for most people, not to mention the time spent filling out cards and checking for winners. This is far easier to do if a group of five or six get together and share the costs and the work.

PROBABILITY

This doesn’t mean this “system” will make you big money; it’s just a way of reducing the odds against you. Since every drawing is a unique event, the odds don’t change if you play it for a long time or play the same numbers all the time. And never, ever, think of the money spent as an “investment”. It’s not, you’re paying for a chance to win, and nothing more.

We like to think random events “balance out” over time, and if a random act like flipping a coin is done often enough you’ll get an equal number of all possible outcomes. And it works. If you flip a coin 100 times, you’ll almost always come up with around a 50/50 split between heads and tails. In fact, if ten people flip different coins ten times each and you add the results, it would still come out around 50/50, even if some people got far more heads and others got far more tails.

Some “systems” claim tracking numbers and calculating probabilities can give you an edge by spotting numbers that haven’t come up often. These “cold” numbers are thought to be more likely appear, the same way more coin tosses are likely to be tails if heads have come up a few times in a row .

But remember how the results were the same when you had ten people flipping different coins instead of one person flipping one coin? That’s the way it works with lotteries. Figuring probability on the historical winners of the Powerball is useless because it’s only one game, and probability can only be figured in a theoretical way across ALL games. So if the number 17 hasn’t shown up for awhile in your lottery, it doesn’t mean it’s “likely” to do so at any time. It may be coming up like crazy in a lottery seven states away, thus satisfying the rules of probability.

HOT NUMBERS

The opposite of a cold number is a “hot” one. Hot numbers show up in clusters, and are as probable as any other number. In fact, it hasn’t been unusual for the same Powerball number to come up two weeks in a row.

Some “systems” suggest avoiding hot numbers because they have a lower probability. But remember, probability doesn’t apply within a single game, it applies across all games. Playing a hot number is likely just a statistical balancing against another lottery where the number hasn’t come up much.

BEWARE SYSTEMS

The randomness of lotteries is what keeps them fair and prevents players from getting any significant edge. The only proven way to improve the odds is to buy more tickets.

There are a lot of advertisements for systems that will improve your odds, but don’t be taken in. The testimonials and claims are always fiction, designed to lure you into spending money for their “secrets”. Ultimately, however, these systems only make money for those selling them.