Has anyone noticed how small the National Lottery jackpots are now?

I have to admit that I do occasionally play the National Lottery. I don’t play it because I expect to win (I remember too much about the laws of probability for that!): I just play it for a bit of fun. What concerns me though is the way it has developed over the years.

When our National Lottery started in 1994 I seem to recall that there was only one draw each week on a Saturday. There were no scratch cards, Thunderball, Lotto Hot Picks, nor Plus 5 and the jackpot each week was usually, but not always, reasonably commensurate with the probability of winning it (i.e. more than the 13,983,816 to 1 odds).

There have been many attempts to try and explain, to those who are not mathematically minded, quite how astronomical those odds are – allow me to quote just a couple. It’s greater than the probability of throwing 24 coins in the air and them all coming down heads (or tails). It is also greater than the chances of the same number coming up four times on a roulette wheel (there are 37 of them for those who don’t know!) 

Now those odds haven’t changed over the last 19 years of course but the jackpot prize money certainly has. In the last six bi-weekly draws the payout, had they all been won, has averaged less than £2 million on a Wednesday and £4.7 million on a Saturday.

So what has happened?

I think it is fair to assume that the average gambler in this country only has a limited amount that he or she is willing to bet every week on a national lottery whatever the method. Back in 1994 they could only lay out that money all at once on Saturday tickets. Now with all the various draws and other miscellaneous ways of staking your cash, the amount they spend has seemingly been spread over the week and over those other methods. As a direct result, less has been spent on the weekly draws and the prize money has dropped accordingly.

So, as an example, if you had purchased the winning ticket on Wednesday this week (nobody did by the way) the return you would have got for taking a nearly 14 million-to-one shot with your £1 would have been a mere £1,842,395!

There is a more general debate to be had about whether you have ever got value for money out of Camelot. The probability of getting three winning numbers on your ticket is and always has been 0.01765 (or 57 to 1 in bookmaker’s terms). For achieving that, Camelot generously pay you out £10! How would you feel if you bet on a racehorse that was considered a ’50-1 shot’ in a race and when it won the bookmaker only paid you out £10?

Staying with this Wednesday’s results for a moment, here are the rest of the odds versus the payouts:

  • Four numbers – 1,032 to 1. Payout £51;
  • Five numbers – 54,201 to 1. Payout £1,452;
  • Five + the bonus ball – 2,330,636 to 1 (I think!) Payout £94,481

My apologies if the last probability is inaccurate but I’m working these out myself not looking on Camelot’s website (I know – I should get out more!)

Whatever your views on getting value from those that run it, in my opinion you rarely get value from the jackpot payouts now on a Wednesday or Saturday. The prize money has to roll-over for a number of draws before it gets anywhere near a ‘value-for-money’ payout. I believe Camelot should realise that by diversifying the ways people can gamble with them, they have devalued their flagship draw and should restore it so that it pays out a jackpot that at least vaguely rewards the risks people are taking with their money.

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