Playing the national lotteries: what everyone needs to know

Most approaches to responsible gambling begin with communicating basic factual information about the game to the player. Understanding how the game is designed goes a long way to helping you determine whether playing it is something you want to do. And whether the risk (how much you’re willing to wager) is worth the reward (your potential share of the prize pool).

Canada’s two most popular lotteries are Lotto 6/49 and the more recently introduced LOTTO MAX. Comparing how they are designed is a good way to understand some of the things you’d probably want to know about the games.

The Matrix

Both national lotteries use a field of 49 numbers, but the matrix is slightly different. To win the top prize in Lotto 6/49 you choose six numbers and all must match the six numbers drawn (there’s also a bonus number drawn for the “Extra” which we won’t discuss here). For LOTTO MAX you choose seven numbers and must match all seven to win the top prize. So the odds of winning the top prize are better for 6/49 than for LOTTO MAX.

The Prize Fund

In both cases, total sales of tickets determine the Prize Fund. For Lotto 6/49, 47 per cent of sales are dedicated to the Prize fund, while 48 per cent of sales is dedicated to the Prize Fund for LOTTO MAX. The balance of the money can be considered the “house advantage”, or the amount BCLC retains of all the wagers made from which retail commissions, marketing and operating costs and of course net income for the Province are derived.

For both games, un-won jackpots are rolled over to the next draw. With the exception of lower level prizes that provide for a fixed prize amount, prizes consist of a share of the total Prize Fund. When there are multiple winners at those prize levels, the share is divided equally between them.

For example, to win lower level prizes in LOTTO MAX, you must match 4 of 7 numbers or 3 of 7 or 3 of 7 plus the bonus. In Lotto 6/49, a minimum of 3 out of 6 numbers must be matched or 2 out of 6 numbers along with a Bonus must be matched in order to win.

Jackpot size

As indicated above, the prizing for both games is dependent on sales of tickets leading up to each draw. However the top prize­–the jackpots–for each game, do have some unique elements.

Lotto 6/49 jackpots are determined exclusively on the basis of ticket sales, typically starting at between $3 – $4 million. The amount publicized is an estimate based on sales expectations. When not won, the jackpot allocation is carried over to the next draw and added to the new estimated jackpot. As the top prize remains un-won, the jackpot continues to roll over and grow. The largest Lotto 6/49 jackpot ever was won on October 26, 2005. The single winning ticket was worth $54.3 million.

LOTTO MAX, on the other hand, has both a minimum of $10 million and maximum of $50 million in jackpot amounts. When sales warrant a larger jackpot than the $50 million maximum, a secondary prize or group of prizes of $1 million (called MaxMillions) is created. A separate draw is made for each of the available MaxMillions prizes, and any that are not won are also rolled over to the following draw’s jackpot prize pool.

Cost to play

The minimum cost to play LOTTO MAX is $5 for three selections of seven numbers. Lotto 6/49 costs $2 per selection of 6 numbers.

Odds of winning

As mentioned earlier, the odds of winning the top prize in Lotto 6/49 are better (1 in 13,983,816) compared to LOTTO MAX (1 in 28,633,528). However, the odds of winning any prize (the lowest of which is $5) in Lotto 6/49 is a little less than 1 in 32. For LOTTO MAX it’s less than 1 in 8 including free plays, or 1 in 36 for any of the cash prizes (which begin at $20). Complete odds tables for all lottery products including LOTTO MAX and Lotto 6/49 are available on

Now you know

These are the fundamentals of the national lottery games, but of course there are still lots of options including whether or not you might wish to play the Bonus numbers. There are also a variety of “packages” available for various combinations of numbers, lines of plays and Bonus options.

But you now know something about the mechanics of the games, the “house advantage” and the odds of winning. Getting this type of information for any gambling product before playing will help you make a more informed choice about participating.

So is buying a lottery ticket a good play?

Well really that’s up to you. Many people buy tickets simply for the enjoyment of imagining what you might do with the prize money. Others enjoy the social element of participating in a group purchase plan.

But if you’re considering lottery as a potential fund for retirement, remember that the odds of being struck by lightning (about 1 in 576,000) are considerably better than winning the jackpot in either game.

By comparison, the odds of getting a perfect 29 hand in a two-player game are 1 in 216,580, and the odds of getting a Royal Flush in poker on the first five cards dealt are 1 in 649,740.

But then again there’s no multi-million dollar prize waiting for you if you achieve either.

Note: For detailed official advice on how BC’s various lottery games work, please consult the Lottery Game Guide.

This entry was posted in From the Experts, The Nature of Responsible Gambling and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s