How to Pick Lottery Numbers
Discover how to pick lottery numbers in a way that could double your top prize and help you keep more of the jackpot.
A video on picking lucky lottery numbers.
On the 31st March 2005, something very strange happened. A total of 110 people across 26 states matched five out of six winning numbers in the same Powerball drawing, netting second-tier prizes of just $100,000 each ($500,000 with Power Play).
What was going on? Lottery officials were alarmed by the weird result and went looking for answers. Could there have been widespread fraud?
The real answer was less dramatic. The only thing the winners may have had in common was eating Chinese takeout before the drawing - because the numbers they chose happened to be the “lucky numbers” found in a common brand of fortune cookie.
It’s a Date
We humans have a basic urge to impose order on chaos. This attracts us to numbers that mean something to us, or leads us to form patterns that stand out.
This is a deep psychological trait, going beyond lottery tickets. An Australian study found that the most popular wedding dates have numbers that form patterns (like 10/11/12), and these are much more popular than "random" dates.
The same desire applies to picking lottery numbers.
The number 7 - the world's favorite number - is the most popular pick.
Some of us choose numbers we’ve dreamed of.
Many people play the same numbers over and over again for years. The man who won half the $343 million Powerball jackpot in October 2018 won using numbers he'd been playing for 25 years.
The fortune cookie even made a comeback when the $344.6 million Powerball jackpot winner in North Carolina in the June 1st, 2019 draw revealed that his numbers came from a fortune cookie given to him by his granddaughter!
However, picking important dates like birthdays or anniversaries - the so-called "birthday bias" - is definitely one of the most common ways to choose lottery ticket numbers.
We all know it’s not a good idea to choose our birthday as an online password because they are less secure. Why do experts warn us against doing this? Because otherwise we are very likely to choose these familiar numbers.
There’s also a downside to picking lottery numbers based on dates.
Each year has only 12 months, and each month has a maximum of 31 days. If you restrict yourself to dates, you’re leaving a lot of other potential numbers on the table.
For example, Powerball lets you pick numbers 1 through 69, and in Mega Millions, you can select numbers from 1-70 inclusive. That means if you only choose dates, you’re leaving 38 or 39 numbers out of consideration.
Choosing Popular Lottery Numbers Means You’re More Likely to Share the Jackpot
Statistically, there are no best lottery numbers to pick, in the sense that all numbers are equally likely to win. You’re just as likely to win by picking dates as any other way. Your birthday, a Quick Pick, or any other set of numbers have the same chances of hitting the jackpot.
However, there is one way that using dates could put you at a disadvantage: A whole lot of other people are using dates too.
If you do ever win the jackpot using dates, there is a higher chance that you will have to share it with other players who also used dates to pick their numbers!
Picking Unpopular Lottery Numbers Could Double Your Jackpot Win
Researchers at Southampton University in the U.K. revealed how to increase your chances of winning a bigger jackpot.
Their study analyzed 69 million U.K. lottery tickets from one drawing. Although the lottery didn’t provide the actual numbers picked, they did gave the researchers the distribution of number combinations.
Researchers found that people did not pick their numbers at random. Instead, there were some number combinations that were very popular.
Many number combinations appeared multiple times (dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of times) – more than random chance would have produced.
On the flip side, there were a lot of combinations that players hadn’t picked at all.
The secret to a bigger jackpot win is to choose unpopular numbers, which reduces the chance that you’ll have to share that precious top prize with any other winners.
(However, science still hasn’t cracked the problem we really want the answer to – how to predict the winning numbers in advance!)
The scientists analyzed how many tickets shared the jackpot, then compared that to the winning numbers. A higher number of winners sharing the jackpot meant the numbers they chose were more popular with players.
The same lines of popular numbers may be chosen by over 50 players in each draw, while unpopular numbers may only be picked every few draws.
And the researchers found that hitting the jackpot with unpopular numbers could double your prize!
While the study only looked at U.K. numbers, the findings track closely with what researchers in the U.S. have discovered.
More evidence of patterns in number selection came from the findings of a group of math and statistics professors at Dartmouth and other U.S. universities. The academics looked at a complete set of Powerball numbers selected by players in one state for one drawing.
There were 17,000 tickets where players picked their own numbers (that is, not random, computer-generated Quick Picks). In those days players could choose numbers from 1 to 45. That gave the researchers over 100,000 numbers to study.
The professors also created a model to show what random chance number distributions would look like. They used a similar amount of the lottery computer’s random number picks for that draw. According to random chance, each number should have been picked the same number of times.
However, in both the U.K. and U.S. studies, the numbers players chose were definitely not random – they showed a pattern. Players liked some numbers much more than others.
Which Numbers Are the Most Popular?
So what can science tell us about players' habits when they pick lottery numbers - so you know which numbers to choose and which to avoid?
The U.K. study found that 7 was the most popular number, and 25% more players selected it than 46, the least popular.
The most popular numbers played in the U.K. were 7, 14, 21, 28, 35 and 42 – “lucky” number 7 and multiples of it. Players used this combination tens of thousands of times every week.
In the U.S. study, people also chose small numbers much more frequently than large numbers. Again, number 7 was the standout favorite. Players chose it more than 5,000 times – 19 standard deviations above the mean.
So it seems lucky numbers are actually bad luck if you want to increase your winnings.
Lazy is Crazy
Steer clear of the lazy option of picking the combination 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, said lead U.K. researcher Dr. Simon Cox. 10,000 or more players choose this sequence every week!
An Edgy Strategy
Interestingly, most players choose numbers in the center of the play slip – so pick numbers at the edge to boost your chances of keeping the whole jackpot.
Save the Date
The "birthday bias" is indeed real - dates were very popular lottery picks:
- The draw date seemed to influence the picks – in the U.S. study, 3 and 5 were frequently chosen, which may reflect that the drawing was on the third day of the fifth month.
- 1 through 12 (months) were more popular than numbers above 12.
- Numbers above 31 (days) were chosen less often than you would expect from random chance alone.
Another good tip is to pick consecutive numbers – most players spread their choices out.
A Real-Life Example
A U.K. draw on November 14, 1995 provides a real-life illustration of the effects the researchers had discovered. 133 tickets shared a £16 million top prize, with each jackpot-winning player getting just £120,000. The average number of jackpot winners is five.
The winning numbers – 7, 17, 23, 32, 38, 42 and 48 – are all in central columns of the game slip.
While the Southampton method would give you the edge in keeping the whole jackpot, it doesn’t produce enough wins to counteract the costs of buying huge numbers of tickets.
The team found that a large syndicate purchasing 75,000 tickets a week since the U.K. National Lottery started would have won £10.3 million using their method, compared to £6.9 million picking numbers at random. However, they still would have lost money after spending £15.3 million buying the tickets.
Do’s and Don’ts to Avoid Sharing the Jackpot
We've learned that people have a strong tendency to choose “lucky” or familiar numbers – often dates that mean something to them. There are also a few other quirks in how numbers are commonly chosen.
Avoid the popular numbers and ways of picking them, and you'll have a better shot at keeping the whole jackpot.
- Choose numbers above 31 to avoid day and month picks.
- Pick sequential numbers (just not 1-6). Most players spread their picks out across the ticket.
- Pick numbers around the edges of the play slip – most players choose numbers in the center.
- Pick numbers in a random way, such as:
- Choose dates. But if you're going to play your birthday anyway, then find out the best ways to use birthdays as lucky lottery numbers.
- Pick the date the draw is held on. For example, if it’s May 3, don’t choose the numbers 5 and 3.
- Choose “lucky” number 7 or its multiples 14, 21, 28, 35 and 42. These are strong favorites that many players choose.
- Pick the lazy sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. This is chosen thousands of times a week!
Is it best to pick your own lottery numbers? If you win the jackpot, following the tips above gives you the best chance to avoid sharing it. So to keep that jackpot all to yourself, play smart and stay away from the numbers everyone else is choosing!