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Last Updated: Friday, 3 February 2006, 13:55 GMT
Could it be you?
Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Lottery ticket
Take a chance?
The odds of winning the EuroMillions lottery are 76 million to one. So why are so many buying tickets?

Lottery fever is spreading across Europe, fuelled by the prospect of winning the biggest ever lottery pay-out of 125m. The EuroMillions draw will see punters in nine countries hoping to win a bumper rollover jackpot, that has not been won for 11 consecutive weeks.

Ticket sales in the UK are up 1,200% - and this Friday's lottery is expected to exceed the three million tickets being sold an hour in the run up to last week's draw.

So are we just taking a chance or being taken for a ride? According to bookmakers William Hill, the odds on winning the jackpot are 76 million to one.

To put this in perspective, spokesman Graham Sharpe says this week the bookmaker has given similar odds to two other gambles - one for the world to end, and the other for Chantelle from Celebrity Big Brother to become the next England football manager.

As likely as that? But when we've virtually no chance of winning, why are so many of us queuing up to hand over 1.50 for a ticket?

Dream on

Professor Alastair Ross, a psychologist who specialises in interpreting gambling and risk, says we find it almost impossible to understand such a huge level of improbability.

French lottery
Europe in the grip of lottery fever
"People can't conceive how unlikely it is," says Dr Ross, who appears as a psychology expert on televised poker. As a way of putting it into context, he says that a weekly player of the national lottery could only expect to win a jackpot if they lived to be 300,000 years old.

It could be you... in 299,960 years? Dr Ross says that set against the depressing maths is the irrepressible optimism that says: "No one has a better chance than me of winning."

Unlike gambling on horses or cards, with a lottery there are no other players who might have more skill or knowledge - and that sense of an equal chance makes it more attractive, says Dr Ross.

Players also find it hard not to believe that if they keep buying tickets they increase the likelihood of success - or similarly that if no one has won the jackpot for a few weeks, a big pay-out must be imminent.

Buy into a dream

Except probability doesn't work that way. Each fresh lottery draw offers odds that are as bleak as the last.

Lottery luck
Slim pickings
In statistical terms, the EuroMillions lottery might be "throwing a coin in the ocean", but Dr Ross rejects the idea that this is necessarily a bad thing, or an unfair delusion.

Gambling, in its broadest sense, is a natural instinct, and within bounds is a way of getting excitement for a relatively low risk. Taking chances is a way of developing and finding out what's possible. And he argues that the growth in gambling, such as the boom in online betting and poker, is a reaction to an increasingly risk-averse society.

And it doesn't seem that having such a slim chance of a big win is any deterrent. If it did, the National Lottery operator Camelot wouldn't have taken 4.77bn in ticket sales last year.

No figure is available for the continent-wide sales for EuroMillions, but Camelot says the average stake for its other lottery games in the UK is between 85m and 90m a week.

Binge winning

What's remarkable about the current outbreak of lottery mania is the scale of the prize. It's not that long ago that winning a wood-panelled caravan on Sale of the Century was considered a symbol of high living.

Chantelle Houghton
An instant celeb for an instant dream
Now with binge drinking and binge shopping, we have binge winning. Game shows offer 1,000,000 and lotteries have upped the expectation levels, with vast fortunes used as the selling point.

The EuroMillions draw has already produced a massive winner, when Dolores McNamara in County Limerick, Ireland, won 77m last July.

Dr Ross says that these big pay-outs have plugged gambling and game shows into the celebrity culture, in which people think that by winning the lottery they can enter this glamorous lifestyle.

And appropriately, the woman who became famous overnight for becoming famous overnight, Chantelle Houghton, is the public face of this week's EuroMillions draw.

Kid gloves

And if someone is lucky enough to win, what to do with that life-changing ticket? Graham and Julie Everall, of Bolton, wrapped theirs in cling-film to prevent damage after winning 4.2m in October in a EuroMillions draw.

If a Briton was to collect the 125m jackpot, they would shoot to 366th place in the UK's rich list, neck and neck with Ringo Starr, and ahead of David Bowie, the Beckhams, Sean Connery and Rod Stewart. Even if the money simply sat in a bank account, the bankers Coutts says it would generate 15,400 a day in interest.

There may be narrower odds on Elvis crash landing in a UFO on top of the Loch Ness Monster, but maybe, just maybe...

Graphic comparing the chances of jackpot win with being killed in a road accident and having the top poker hand
Being dealt a Royal Flush poker hand - 1 in 650,000
Being killed today in a road accident in the UK - 1 in 6 million
Winning the EuroMillions jackpot - 1 in 76 million
Source: John Haigh, University of Sussex


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

We need dreams in life to keep going. The good thing about the really unrealistic ones - like for instance the one of winning the Eurolottery Jackpot - is that it will enable us to keep dreaming... "Take the dream away from the average person, and you'll take his happiness away". This was the message of one of Ibsen's great plays too. And it still applies.
Ann W Armitstead, Hull, UK

It's the safest form of gambling available - everyone has an equal chance of winning and there is no insider info, past experience or knowledge that can give anyone an edge - that's the appeal. If I won, I would put at least 100m of the amount straight into a high yield bank account, and live off the interest. The rest of the money I would distribute between friends, family and charities.
Darren Coleman, Westbury, UK

"You can't win it if you're not in it" - just one chance is better than none. I'd build my dream house, buy my dream cars for my immediate family and invest in business.
Mr Eamcat, Torbay, UK

Do we really need in-depth analysis from psychologists to understand why people are buying tickets? The chances of winning are extremely remote, but it is still possible. The potential winnings are huge and 1.50 isn't much to lose on an occasional gamble
Mike, Leeds

Players' fingers crossed

As you state, the odds of me being killed in a road accident are 1 in 6 million. Every day, people are hit by cars, and unlike the lottery, they didn't pay for the privilege and benefit nothing. Therefore paying 1.50 to risk a happy outcome is worth a go in my book. Since this is one occurrence where rare outcomes provide benefit rather than death.
James Upton, London

With my winnings i'd buy the usual, house, cars, small plane and dish some out to close ones. The biggest buy though would be a yacht. Watch out Roman Abramovich, i'm gonna have the leanest meanest bigger boat than you!
Pedro, London, UK

If I buy 1 ticket I have 1 on a gazillion chance of winning If I buy no ticket I have no chance of winning. I do not need a University degree to come to that conclusion. Simple and free advice!!!.
Declan Prenty, Boston

Let's face it - the odds are against us, but are hugely better than if you don't even try. 1.50 is worth it on the remote chance that you might just get lucky.
Freya, London

For a mere 1.50 on a Monday, you get a little buzz all week - what happens if I win? Cheaper than a pint of beer, a glass of wine or a packet of ciarettes, non-intoxicating, non-fattening, non-carcinogenic and totally legal. And when you don't win on Friday, you can just say to yourself, "well, it was only a small chance of winning."
Peter, London, UK

It might be 1 in 76,000,000 - but I've got as much chance as anyone else!
Rikki, UK

If no-one wins the jackpot this time the odds improve considerably on the next draw. On Feb 10th if the jackpot is not won it will be split between the next level of winners, where the chances of winning are 14 times higher. The payout per person could be in the region of 10 million. I think I could get by on that amount.
Chris, Paris, France

It makes no odds to me what the psychologists say, because I AM going to win the euro lottery tonight ! So everyone may as well stop buying tickets because i really do have it in the bag !!!
Anne , Brighton

People just don't get it. The point of playing isn't the necessarily the money. It's the thoughts between buying the ticket and the draw. What you would do. What you would set straight. How crazy you would go. How level headed you could be or maybe how debauched. Up to a week's worth of fantasy's for 1.50? Bargain if ever I saw one.
Jamie Davis, Bristol

I think the chances of the world to end are bigger than winning the lottery. But I'm playing anyway. It is not just about winning.
Beatriz, London

Well, eventually somebody is going to win it,and there are a number of lesser but still substantial prizes too, which again somebody is going to win. The real 100% certainty is that if you haven't entered then you won't be that somebody
Andrew, Hertfordshire

Who Dares Wins!
Nick Beer, Somersham, Cambs

To say that that buying multiple tickets does not increase your chances simply isn't true. The chances of winning more or less double whether you buy two tickets one week or one ticket each week for two weeks (although the former gives you a slightly higher chance).
Matthew Wood, Edinburgh

The "impossible" odd fell to the Irish woman who won 77m. Did she in her wildest dream thought she could hit the jackpot?...oh and that Chav lotto winner, did it bother him that he was more likely to get a Knighthood from the Queen then winning those millions? Same here: I'm hopefull as long as I have a ticket ( I have 30 tickets way the way ;-))
Gyaltsen, London

It may be 1:76m odds but unlike the same odds given on Elvis landing in a UFO on the Loch Ness monster, it's quite likely that someone will win the lottery jackpot tonight... After all, if 76m people choose random numbers then the odds of *someone* winning become 1:1. It's just highly improbable that it will be you. I only ever play on roll-overs and take a 1/3rd share in a single ticket normally. We play as a family - shared risk, shared reward. I also only ever play random numbers... If you play the same "lucky" numbers each week and miss a week, you can bet that will be the week "your" numbers come up... now that's a risk I don't want to take.
Peter, London

To say that that buying multiple tickets does not increase your chances simply isn't true. The chances of winning more or less double whether you buy two tickets one week or one ticket each week for two weeks (although the former gives you a slightly higher chance).
,

The expected return is the possible gain divided by the chances of gaining it - in this case 125m/76m = 1.65. As this is greater than the cost of entry, this is a "good" opportunity. Provided no-one else has your numbers, of course.
Richard, Cambridge

To quote Dr Ross: "No one has a better chance than me of winning." Isnt this stating the blindingly obvious? We need a psychologist on hand to comfirm this? 1.50 for the chance to safeguard your family for the next 100 years? Sign me up!
Matt Brian, Rayleigh, Essex

I think though that they should lower the amount number that you need to match and improve the odds. Or if they made the smaller prizes a bit more worthwhile it would be a bit more exciting. It's always such a let down when you don't win anything.
LOuise, Brighton

As the advertisement board says in France "One hundred percent of the winners have played"
Morgan, London, UK

Has there been any lotteries that have shown to be corrupt?
Mr M Graham, hertford, herts

Whilst I understand the probability laws that govern lotteries, Dr Ross should present his findings coherently to Dolores McNamara, if she'll grant him an audience. The lottery has created thousands of millionaires (not happy people I hasten to add). To truly understand the lure of the lottery is to understand that - no matter how slim - there's still a chance you might just win. It's not a career plan mind!
Harry, london

Plenty of people spend much more a week on cigarettes and alcohol. At least a few pounds on the lottery gives the chance of a nice windfall. It's not a lot of money with a potentially big payout so why not?
JimH, London, UK

As the songs says "If you don't have a dream how you gonna make a dream come true" 1.50 a week on the lottery or a fiver a day on a pack of cigarettes, different odds i know but i know which one I'll be gambling on. I can just see myself cruising in my new Bugatti Veyron. Fingers crossed
Anne Jones, Penwortham, Preston, Lancs

I get enough enjoyment dreaming of what I would do with the winnings, that I almost don't want to check my numbers. Defnitely worth the 1.50 and the punt.
Patrick, London

It's only a chance but whats 1.50... I'd buy a volcanic island with lab and create tuna fish with laser beams on their heads.... muhahahahaha... err fingers crossed.
Jaz, Southampton

The pleasure I get from half an hour's day dreaming about what I would do if I became a lottery winner is worth the 1. If you can't dream..... and some of the 1 goes to charity. PS: If I won the Euromillions I'd go into business with Bono!
Lynn, Newmarket, England

I could make so many people happy, it would be unreal. My mum and dad could stop work forever and retire like they wish to, and then I would go on holiday with my wife forever!
Stuart, Cardiff

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