Are Austin residents' odds at winning a lottery jackpot any better than usual?
The lottery has been making a lot of headlines lately.
The jackpot for Wednesday's Powerball drawing is estimated to reach $1 billion for just the third time in history. For Friday night's Mega Millions drawing, the jackpot is surging toward an estimated $720 million, also one of the highest totals on record.
In early May, one anonymous Austinite won a million-dollar payday from a scratch ticket, and just last month, a Dallas resident cashed infor $1,000,002 after purchasing a winning Mega Millions ticket from a North Austin store.
All this news about historically huge jackpots and lucky local winners may have you wondering: "Are my odds looking any better than usual?”
Long odds growing longer
Changes to the national lottery system over the past decade, combined with more recent adjustments to state lottery rules, have actually made it much more difficult to win the lottery, said Victor Matheson, who teaches economics at College of the Holy Cross.
Nationally, a substantial change came in 2013 when the odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot rose from 1 in 176 million to 1 in 259 million with the idea that it would produce "larger and faster-growing jackpots."
Two years later, the Powerball jackpot odds similarly shifted from 1 in 175.2 million to 1 in 292.2 million. While the odds of winning any prize saw a bump from 1 in 32 to 1 in 25, the likelihood of pulling in top money grew slimmer.
Those adjustments have led to multiple advertised jackpots in excess of a billion dollars in just the past year. As it becomes more difficult to produce a winning ticket, jackpot prizes go unclaimed and roll over into even larger pools for the next drawing.
“This is all possible because you have extremely long odds. And because these are nationwide lotteries, lots of people are buying,” Matheson said. “When you have the combination of lots of people contributing to the pool but it being very hard to win, you get these occasional gigantic jackpots.”
With Monday's drawing once again having no grand prize winners, the Powerball has now gone 38 straight drawings — dating back to April 19 — without a jackpot hit.
The jackpot drought lingers on despite Texans seeing expanded access from the January launch of an online lottery ticket purchase option.
Matheson said this new reality — in which computers can be used to buy numbers — adds a potential hindrance for individual lottery players. In the past, were an individual or group to attempt to "corner the market" by buying a huge portion of any given drawing's available tickets, they would have to physically purchase tens of millions of individual slips within a two-to-three day period ahead of a large lottery drawing.
Now, Matheson warns, wealthy consortiums are more capable of buying up tickets and giving themselves enhanced odds at claiming a jackpot.
"If you could somehow figure out how to buy every single ticket, it turns out about 10% of all lottery drawings in the United States would have a positive expected value," Matheson said, meaning this sort of investment in purchasing tickets would be profitable over time. "And people have tried. But the problem is, historically, it was always really difficult to figure out."
Another change arrived in August 2021, when the Powerball and Lotto Texas games expanded from two weekly drawings to three.
“With game play, game odds, prizes and costs to play each game remaining the same, that change to three weekly drawings has provided players with more chances to play for larger and faster-growing jackpots,” Texas Lottery Commission media relations specialist Steve Helm wrote in an email to KUT.
The brain's response to gigantic jackpots
But more chances to play doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more likely to win, said Michael Robinson, a psychology professor at Concordia University who studies gambling addiction.
The surging jackpot numbers aren’t happening because of increased drawing frequency. They’re happening because people are playing more.
As lottery players purchase tickets, a portion of their money accumulates in the lottery prize pool. Systems vary from state to state, but in Texas, 67.5% of lottery funds go to prize payments, 23.8% to Texas education, 5.3% to retailer compensation and the remaining 3.4% to lottery administration fees and other state programs, according to the Texas Lottery Commission website.
"As humans, we are awful at assessing odds beyond very simple ones. So, 50%, 25% we get. But a chance in six million is just not fathomable for our brain."Michael Robinson, psychology professor at Concordia University
Despite the different ways in which lottery revenue is moved around, the more drawings a lottery goes without producing a winner, the more money builds up in the prize pool.
“In a lottery, it’s very obvious that whatever the jackpot is is fundamentally based on everyone playing,” Robinson said.
Psychologically, though, it doesn’t matter so much how the jackpot accumulates. We just know that the grand prize is there. And that, technically, we have a shot.
“The bigger the numbers are of what you can win, the more attractive it is and the more people will tend to think that their chances are bigger,” Robinson said, "as totally irrational as that is.”
In other words, the odds of coming away with the jackpot have been cut considerably. But Robinson says humans tend not to weigh that decrease in win probability as heavily as they do increases in jackpot prizes.
“Some of that has to do with the fact that, as humans, we are awful at assessing odds beyond very simple ones," Robinson said. "So 50%, 25% we get. But a chance in six million is just not fathomable for our brain.”
To think about it another way, given there are three weekly drawings, that means it could take tens of thousands of years for your “turn” — the point at which you would have a statistical probability of winning a lottery jackpot — to come up. And Robinson said there’s no guarantee a given person would even win with so many attempts.
“Our brain is very biased towards thinking the best,” Robinson said.
Humans are inclined to overestimate chances of things turning out better for them personally than for anybody else. That mindset can have tremendous value for survival, Robinson said, but it doesn’t always pan out in practice.
“If it’s 50-50, then we’re thinking 'I’m probably going to win,'” Robinson said with a laugh. “You’re probably going to win and you’re probably going to not, and those two are equal.”
What the numbers say
Official numbers from the Texas Open Data Portal show that in the time since the Texas Lottery moved from two to three weekly drawings, Austinites have actually been winning million-dollar prizes more frequently.
It is a relatively small sample, given the change to three weekly draws only went into effect 23 months ago. But in the nearly two years since that point, six different Austin residents have won lottery prizes of exactly $1 million, and a seventh winner in that span claimed a $5 million prize. That’s about 3.5 million-dollar winners per year, raking in an average of $1.6 million in prizes.
Between November 1992 (the first month lottery winner data was collected in the Texas Open Data Portal) and July 2021, there were 38 prizes of at least $1 million distributed to Austin residents. That would average out to approximately 1.3 Austinites per year winning lottery prizes of at least $1 million.
The crazy part? Those 38 prizes average out to $9.8 million a piece. Although, since the recent Texas Lottery rule changes, we haven’t witnessed any local prize payouts remotely approaching the monster $127 million pot won by Austin claimant TL Management Trust in 2015.
Only once has an Austin resident won more than $1 million since the 2021 increase in weekly draws. There were 27 Austinites who won prizes over $1 million in the preceding three decades. It was practically a yearly occurrence.
Matheson said that considering the even more astronomical odds of winning the lottery, one response is simply to not play at all.
“But, you know, $2 is a pretty low price to dream about what you would do with a billion dollars,” he said. “As long as you’re buying it for the dream and not buying it thinking that you’re actually going to come out ahead in this, then it’s probably a harmless pastime."
The National Problem Gambling Helpline can be reached by phone at 1-800-GAMBLER, via chat at www.1800gamblerchat.org or by text at 800GAM.