$500 million Powerball jackpot is big for a reason: the odds are worse

Lottery player

Wislande Cosmeus helps a customer get a few tickets for tonight’s $500 million dollar Powerball jackpot at the 7-Eleven convenience store on Southern Boulevard in West Palm Beach on January 6, 2016. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

(Reporter’s update at 1:20 p.m.: The estimated jackpot has increased from $450 million to $500 million today.)

At an estimated $500 million, tonight’s Powerball drawing could be one of the largest U.S. lottery jackpots ever.

And that’s partly because last year, the people who run Powerball made it harder to win the top prize, increasing the already-impossible odds to create bigger and bigger jackpots.

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Why? Because the lotteries will make more money. Larger jackpots generate more attention, both from the media and the public, which generates more sales.

Lotteries who participate in Powerball downplay this by saying that your odds of winning something besides the largest jackpot are better. In a glowing Florida Lottery press release from October, when the changes were made, the lottery couldn’t even bring itself to call the odds “worse.” Instead, it said the odds were “extended.”

But really, the odds of winning something aren’t much better. The odds of winning $4 on your $2 bet went from 1 in 111 to 1 in 92.

Meanwhile, the odds of winning the top jackpot went from 1 in 175,223,510 to 1 in 292,201,338.

To be fair, though, the previous odds were so remote that playing it was still a fool’s errand.

Overall, the move is a gimmick by lotteries that have experienced slowing sales, Aaron Abrams, an associate math professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, told NorthJersey.com in July.

“It’s certainly a short-term fix, and you can see they’ve changed the rules over and over and over again. They come up with gimmicks,” Abrams said. “Lotteries are in business and they’re in business to make money, and this is marketing. They change the game in an attempt to get attention and spur sales, generate interest and get people excited about the lottery.”

So how did the Multi-State Lottery Association, which manages Powerball, make the odds worse?

To win the Powerball jackpot, you have to correctly pick five numbers, plus a sixth “Powerball” number, generated from a ball machine.

Before, the first five numbers ranged from 1 to 59. Now, they range from 1 to 69. Meaning, the chances became worse.

The sixth “Powerball” number did get better, though. It used to range from 1 to 35. Now it’s between 1 and 26.

If you’re still inclined to play, though, you might take solace in this fact: Florida, which has hosted the Powerball drawings since it started selling the game in 2009, has had more winners than any other state.

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