Why Tonight's Huge Rollover Means it's a Bad Night to Get a Lotto Ticket
[and why you should wait for Next Tuesday’s Euromillions instead]

Posted: 9th January 2016

Everyone is in a flap because tonight’s Lotto jackpot prize is going to be the biggest in its 21-year history. The jackpot pot stands at almost £60m and tonight, it has to be dished out, either to a jackpot winner or to whoever correctly matches the next level down with 5 numbers and the bonus ball. Coincidentally, in the USA now there is also a huge Powerball rollover of $800m so there’s a lot of chatter and news from both sides of the Atlantic feeding the lottery frenzy. Camelot, the UK National Lottery operators, have advised customers to buy their tickets early because there is going to be a rush. Smart move, there’s nothing like reinforcing a social norm to move us into action, especially when there’s a chance of winning a life-changing amount of cash involved.

I did a TEDx talk recently about chance and certainty and in preparation for it, I spent quite a bit of time studying Lotto (including its recent changes) and Euromillions. I studied not just the relative odds of the various levels of prizes but also how player behaviour is shaped by the jackpot size and day of the week. In fact I spent the first 3-4 minutes of my talk on the topic of the lottery, about lotto player beliefs and their understanding of odds.

Lotto Odds

Back in October 2015, just three months ago, Camelot refreshed the formula for the UK’s lottery. Whereas before then, players had to choose 6 correct balls out of 49, they now have to choose 6 out of 59. It’s only 10 extra numbers but compounded into the math for the draw of each ball, actually means players are now approximately THREE TIMES LESS LIKELY to win the jackpot, just 1 chance in 45 million compared to the 1 in 14 million that it was before.

This change has gone unnoticed by most people, with no noticeable changes in the number of tickets sold. I guess if we were stupid enough to buy a ticket before October, when the chances of winning were still miniscule, then we probably have such a poor grasp of understanding the size of the odds that a hike up to 1 in 45 million doesn’t mean that much to us.

The odds of 1 in 45 million are similar to the chances that a single adult in England picked at random, wakes up every morning and remembers they are married to George Osborne!

However, Camelot has also introduced the new millionaire raffle, so a guaranteed ticket for each draw will now win £1 million. Obviously, this changes the nature of the game quite a bit, because a raffle draw is not the same as a lottery system and it also opens up the question for us to ask, “What am I hoping to win?” If your goal is to win “at least £1 million” then forget about the jackpot and focus instead on the raffle. The chances of winning the raffle vary each week depending on the number of players. On a week like this week, when there is a stampede to buy tickets - because everyone is so dazzled by the size of the jackpot - there will be a lot of extra players – SO DON’T BUY A TICKET FOR TONIGHT’S DRAW!

The sales profiles for Lotto and Euromillions (which is also £2 per ticket and also has a UK millionaire raffle) show the following approximate average weekly number of tickets sold:

Lotto, Wednesdays – 9 million
Lotto, Saturdays – 16 million
Euromillions, Tuesdays – 5 million
Euromillions Fridays – 8 million

Also, immediately after a large windfall/rollover has been won, typically the number of players dips. So my tip for you is to wait to spend your £2 on a ticket for next Tuesday’s Euromillions. It could be you! (But it won’t be.)



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