The Law of Large Numbers and the Lottery


A lottery is a game of chance in which people pay a small amount of money for the opportunity to win a larger sum. The prize in a lottery can be anything from a car to a house, but most often it’s money. People play lottery games by purchasing tickets, either in person or online, and submitting a group of numbers to be drawn. Some states operate their own lotteries, while others license private companies to run them in return for a percentage of the profits.

The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and the poor. They were forbidden for two centuries, but then reappeared as public and private ones in the 17th century. The private ones were run by the Paris municipality and by religious orders in convents, bringing in considerable income.

Lottery players tend to choose combinations with a poor success-to-failure ratio. This is because they lack the information needed to make a better choice. But understanding the law of large numbers can help them improve their odds. The law of large numbers (or the laws of probability, for those who aren’t mathematicians) explains why unusual events occur in all random events, including lottery draws.

The main argument for the introduction of state-run lotteries has always been that they represent a valuable source of painless revenue for the state, since players are voluntarily spending their own money for the benefit of the public good. But the question is whether this is a proper function for a government, especially in light of the potential negative consequences, such as increased gambling addiction and inequality, that may arise.