Lottery tickets are cheap and easy to get, but the odds of winning are poor
By Mark Gruetze
Published: Thursday, April 12, 2012, 4:55 p.m.
The most popular form of legalized gambling doesn't usually happen in a casino.
It's more common at the neighborhood grocery, convenience store and gas station -- places that sell lottery tickets.
Pittsburgh ranks fourth in the country for lottery participation, according to a study released Jan. 30 by Scarborough Research of New York. Half the area's adults bought at least one ticket in the month before the survey; Buffalo is No. 1, at 57 percent, followed by Providence, R.I., and Albany, N.Y. New York City tied Pittsburgh at 50 percent.
Overall, 39 percent of Americans adults play the lottery, Scarborough says. That's despite a "house edge" far greater than in most casinos.
While Pennsylvania slot machines give back just 90 percent of the money bet, the state lottery returns only 61 percent. Put another way, slot players face a house edge of about 10 percent; for lottery players, it's 39 percent -- almost four times higher.
The lottery offers two types of games, scratch-offs and jackpots. The odds of winning depend on what you play.
Pennsylvania scratch-off tickets cost $1 to $20 each, depending on the game. Lottery spokeswoman Allison Roberts says new instant games come out monthly.
As with slot machines, higher-priced tickets have a slightly better payout rate and higher prizes. Still, the difference in odds isn't enough to get excited about.
The chances of winning any prize in the $1 per ticket "Cash Crop" game are one in 4.8. The lowest prize is a free ticket, available on one of every 10 tickets overall; the biggest is $1,000, appearing on one of every 240,000 tickets.
In the $20-per-ticket "Winner Take All: Millionaire Edition," currently the state's hottest-selling instant game, the chances of winning anything are one in 3.21. The lowest prize, $20, shows up on one of every six tickets overall; the odds of winning $1 million are one in 1.2 million.
For the Cash 5 jackpot game, the chances of winning back your $1 ticket price by matching two of the five numbers drawn are one in 11.4. The prize for matching three or four numbers depends on ticket sales and the number of qualifying tickets. Matching three numbers, a one-in-137 chance, typically pays around $10; matching four is a one-in-5,066 chance and generally pays $200 to $350.
Matching all five is a one-in-a-million shot -- actually, one in 962,598, the Lottery says. Jackpots start at $125,000 and increase daily until someone hits.
Odds for all games are available through individual game descriptions at www.palottery.state.pa.us .
"The odds are pretty much the worst for any type of gambling that you can do," says Gary Meo, Scarborough's SVP of print and digital media services. People play because it's cheap and easy.
Meo attributes the lottery's popularity in Pittsburgh to the region's high concentration of baby boomers, those 45 to 64 years old and a lottery's best customers.
Lottery players are surprisingly upscale: 62 percent work full or part time, and 37 percent are in white-collar positions; a third have household incomes topping $75,000 a year.
"We all want to strike it rich," Meo says.
As with slot machines, it's virtually impossible to find an advantage play in the lottery.
If the odds of winning in an instant game are one in five, you can't count on getting a payout by buying a block of five tickets. Think about it on a large scale. In a game with 5-to-1 odds and a million tickets available, 200,000 will win and 800,000 will lose.
"Winning and non-winning tickets are spread out randomly, so ... you are not guaranteed a win if you buy five tickets in a row," says the Lottery's Lauren Piccolo.
And remember: The most common prize is a free ticket or the return of your purchase price.
If you're set on playing jackpot games, wait until the top prize gets close to the odds of winning. When the Cash 5 jackpot reaches $1 million, as it does occasionally, the payout is more than the odds of winning.
You might think a rich player could buy every number combination and be guaranteed of coming out ahead. But with a big jackpot, he'd probably have to split the prize because more people play.
If two games have about the same size jackpot, play the one with lower odds -- "lower" being relative, of course. Say Cash 5 and Match 6 each offer a $1 million prize. The odds for Cash 5 are 962,598-to-1; for Match 6, they're 4.6 million-to-1. Both are long shots, but the Match 6 odds are almost five times worse.
Pa. revenue again tops N.J.
Pennsylvania's 10 casinos topped New Jersey in total gambling revenue in January for the third consecutive month, keeping the Keystone State No. 2 in the country.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board reported this week that table game revenue totaled $53 million last month. Slot revenue was $190.5 million, for a total of $243.5 million. Atlantic City casinos reported a total win of $236.9 million for January. Nevada is the top state for gambling revenue; last month's figures aren't available but the January 2011 total was $877 million.
Slot players lost $48.4 million in Pennsylvania's 10 casinos during the week ended Feb. 12, the Gaming Control Board reported. That's up from $43.2 million in the comparable week last year.
The state gets 55 percent of the gross slot revenue, or what's left of players' wagers after jackpots have been paid.
Statewide, slot machines have paid out at a 90.04 percent rate since the start of the fiscal year in July. For every $100 wagered, the machines returned an average of $90.04.
Payout rates in Western Pennsylvania:
- 89.9 percent: The Rivers; revenue for the week ended Feb. 12 was $5.73 million, up from $4.73 million last year.
- 89.81 percent: The Meadows; revenue for the week was $4.34 million, up from $4.26 million last year.
- 90.44 percent: Presque Isle in Erie; revenue for the week was $2.94 million, up from $2.91 million last year.
QUESTION OF THE WEEK
Why don't poker players get players club points like slot and table game players?
Poker players compete against each other and don't bring as much revenue to the casino as the other two types of gamblers. Slot players generate the most revenue and rack up points the quickest.
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