Lotteries: What are the odds?

You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than winning the jackpot in one of Canada's major lotteries. However, it does happen
Barry Shell beat the odds and won $4 million in July 2009, but was arrested after claiming his winnings. A routine check turned up an outstanding warrant for his arrest. ((Ontario Lottery Corporation))
Big lottery jackpots mean somebody's going to win big. Sometimes.

Canada's biggest lottery jackpot — $54.3 million — was won by a group of 17 oil workers in Camrose, Alta., in October 2005.

What we spend on gambling, by income group


 After-tax income   Average expenditure Expenditure as percentage of total income
 All Canadians$5490.8
Less than $20,000$4913.6
$20,000 to $39,999  $5391.8
$40,000 to $59,999 $527 1.1
$60,000 to $79,999  $555 0.8 
$80,000 and over  $618 0.5 
Source: Statistics Canada Survey of Household Spending

Total ticket sales for that draw reached $99,474,164.

Out of almost 50 million tickets sold for that Lotto 6/49 draw, one extraordinarily lucky group had beaten the odds of one in 13,983,816.

It was Canada's greatest attack of lottery fever. There have been a few since then, including a $50 million prize in Canada's newest national lottery — Lotto Max. That was won by Marie and Kirby Fontaine of Sagkeeng First Nation, northeast of Winnipeg, in November 2009.

Those of us who do play the lottery — and approximately one-quarter of Canadians play weekly — have heard those odds many times before. Pay $2 and your odds of becoming a millionaire are approximately 1 in 14 million.

Your odds are even worse for winning Lotto Max. For $5, you are buying a one in 28,633,528 chance at winning at least $15 million.

Those odds are so long that you are more likely to:

  • Be killed in a terrorist attack while travelling (1 in 650,000).
  • Die — during an average lifetime — of flesh-eating disease (1 in one million).
  • Be killed by lightning (1 in 56,439).

You are three times more likely to be killed in a traffic accident driving 16 kilometres to buy your ticket than winning the jackpot.

In 2002, you were about 10 times more likely to die after being bitten by a poisonous snake or lizard than to win a Lotto 6/49 jackpot. Odds for the snakebite death are one in 1,241,661, according to the U.S. National Safety Council.

Want to increase your chances? Buy 50 tickets a week. You are very likely to win the jackpot at least once — in 5,000 years.

Gambling revenues and profits, Canada



 Gambling revenue$2.734 billion$12.984 billion
 Profits from gambling$1.68 billion $7.101 billion 
Gambling as share of total government revenue 1.9% 5.5%

Source: Statistics Canada

Say you're standing on a football field. You're blindfolded and holding a pin. A friend has released an ant on the field. Your chance of piercing that ant with your pin is about the same as winning a Lotto 6/49 jackpot. One in 14 million. Not exactly a sure bet.

You can increase your odds — for a price. You could try to buy enough tickets to cover all possible six number combinations, but at two bucks a shot, that comes out to $27,967,632.

Hardly seems worth the effort, even with the biggest jackpots, especially if two or three other people come up with the same idea.

Seguro Ndabene of Airdrie, just north of Calgary, has won the lottery five times in four years, including a $17-million Lotto Super 7 jackpot in 2009. ((Bill Graveland/Canadian Press))
Don Pister, spokesman for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission, says there's no rule against it.

"Theoretically, you could try," Pister told "But I don't think your tickets could be processed in time for the draw."

Pister adds that when jackpots hit record territory, the bulk of sales tend to be recorded on the day of the draw, particularly in the afternoon.

South of the border, jackpots for the Powerball lottery have reached as high as $365 million. A group of eight workers at the ConAgra Foods plant in Lincoln, Neb., took home that prize in February 2006. The group opted to take their win in a lump sum payment rather than as annual payments. That reduced their win to $177.3 million — before taxes.

To play the Powerball lottery, you select numbers from two pools of numbers. You pick five numbers from a pool of 55 numbered balls. The sixth number — the Powerball — is picked from the second pool of 42 numbers.

Before April 2005, the first pool of numbers contained 53 balls. By adding two balls to that pool, the odds of winning decreased from around 1 in 120.5 million to 1 in 146.1 million. The longer odds meant fewer jackpot winners, which allowed the money to be carried over to the next draw, creating even bigger jackpots.

Mike Orkin, a professor of statistics at California State University, East Bay, and author of What are the odds?, describes the odds of winning the Powerball lottery this way:

"Let's say you have one friend in Canada, and you put everybody in Canada's name on pieces of paper, and put them in a giant hat and draw one out at random. Then, you are 2½ times more likely to pick your one friend's name than you are to win the Powerball jackpot if you buy a single ticket."

What we spend on lotteries

Albertans spend the least on government-run lotteries ($225 per household) while residents of Nova Scotia spend the most ($278 per household).

Among one-person households, men spend more than twice as much on gambling than women - $763 a year compared to $369 a year. In those one-person households, men between the ages of 45 and 64 are the biggest spending group ($881) in their gender, while women over the age of 65 spend more than any other group ($435) of their gender.

Source: Statistics Canada: Perspectives on Labour and Income: Gambling

Orkin notes that bigger jackpots drive higher ticket sales — but he says that won't improve an individual's chance of winning. It does, however, improve the odds that in that pool of ticket buyers, there will be a winning ticket.

Buying the first ticket will increase the chance to secure financial freedom. No ticket, no chance. One ticket, you've improved that to facing astronomical odds. Buying more than one ticket makes your chances a little less astronomical.

If you want to win big, consider taking that $10 a week you might spend on lottery tickets and investing it. After 35 years, you will be guaranteed $100,314.56 — if you get an eight per cent return on your investment. With a 10 per cent return, your weekly $10 would be worth a guaranteed $166,742.59. Make it $12 a week and at 10 per cent, you've squirrelled away $200,091.10 after 35 years. Again, guaranteed.

Of course, the whole equation goes out the window if you didn't join the office lottery pool - and you're the only one who shows up for work the day after the numbers are drawn.