State lotteries are unlike most government agencies. They provide no essential services, receive no tax money and serve no broad public purpose. Instead, they compete fiercely with private gambling providers for those who enjoy placing a bet.
Headquartered in a renovated bank building in downtown Pueblo, the Colorado Lottery was authorized by voters in 1983. Roughly 90 percent of net revenue goes to pay for trails and open space. Since 1983, the lottery has provided almost $3 billion to Great Outdoors Colorado and the Conservation Trust Fund to protect and preserve wilderness, and to build parks, pools and trails.
During a sunny morning earlier this week, the lottery building’s spacious ground floor offices were quiet. No excited winners — but the staff was ready.
“There was a ‘Lucky for Life’ $25,000 winner in Colorado Springs last night,” said lottery spokesman Jay Sisson. “He or she will get $25,000 a year for life, so we may have some business soon.”
What happens when you walk in with a winning ticket?
“You go the counter, and one of the ladies there will authenticate it,” Sisson said. “Then we’ll give you a bunch of papers to fill out. If you win a big prize — Lotto, Powerball or Mega Millions for example — we strongly suggest that you get legal and financial advice before you decide how to receive the funds. Some people want to set up trusts and that takes time. “But we’ll pay you on the spot, check or electronic transfer, except for Powerball. It’s a multi-state game, and they won’t release funds for 14 days.”
It’s not easy to win the lottery, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. And the lottery gushes about the winners.
“There are lottery winners in all four corners of our beautiful state!” according to its website. “Winner’s [sic] come into lottery claims centers — with payouts both big and small — every day. We love hearing about the lives of our players and the circumstances that led to their lottery dreams coming true! Many speak of an initial disbelief, followed by the slow and happy realization of their good fortune. Since the Lottery’s inception in 1983 more than $5 billion has been paid out in prizes!”
But, Sisson noted, not all winners walk out happy.
“One couple came in with a $5,000 winner, which he presented,” Sisson recalled. “Before we pay, we check for certain liens [e.g. state taxes, child support and the like]. The guy owed $10,000 in back child support, so we just gave him a letter saying that he’d paid $5,000. She started to beat on him, saying, ‘Why didn’t you let me cash it?’ ”
For Lotto, prizes are equal to 50 percent of overall sales, a payout ratio that’s well below that of slot machines and other electronic gaming devices in privately owned casinos.
“By law,” according to the Colorado Department of Gaming, “slot machines must pay out between 80 percent and 100 percent over the life of the machine. Most slot machines pay out around 90 percent.”
YOU’RE A WINNER — MAYBE
Gaming opportunities include Powerball, MegaMillions, Lucky for Life, Lotto, Pick 5, Pick 3 and scratch games. Odds of winning vary.
None of the games involve any skill, unlike casino games such as poker or blackjack. Only luck is involved — and winning a major prize in either of the big multistate games available in Colorado requires luck on an almost unimaginable scale.
The odds of winning Mega Millions are about 1 in 259 million.
Powerball odds, at 1 in 293 million, are even worse.
Buying a $2 ticket for Powerball gives you 0.0000000034 percent chance of winning, while a $1 Mega Millions ticket gives you a 0.0000000039 percent chance.
No sensible gambler would bet on those odds, but the games target the innumerate daydreamers among us — and when the jackpot gets high enough, that means almost everybody in America.
Lucky for Life, another multistate game that went on sale in Colorado this July, gives players the opportunity to win $1,000 per day for life, with payments guaranteed to you or your estate for 20 years. Odds of winning: One in 31 million. The second prize of $25,000 per year for life carries odds of 1.8 million to one.
Lotto, a Colorado-only game that features a progressive jackpot, carries odds of 5.2 million to one. It’s a particularly infuriating game, because you can come oh-so-close and get very little. No one won last Saturday’s drawing grand prize of $5.45 million by matching six of six numbers — but 17 sort-of lucky folks matched five of the six. Congrats on your $476 wins, guys.
Cash 5 has relatively attractive odds (200,000 to one) of winning the $20,000 top prize and better distribution of small prizes. With drawings every day, you can expect immediate gratification (or disappointment). On Aug. 12, two lucky stiffs hit five of five numbers for $20,000, 34 hit four of five for $200, while 639 got three of five for $10 and 6,523 players matched two of five for a buck.
GAMING THE SYSTEM
Could a clever hacker or software program plug numbers into the system and walk off with a few million?
The lottery says no.
“The winning numbers for Lotto and Cash 5 are generated from Automated Drawing Machines in Pueblo,” the website notes. “The ADM machines are stand-alone [personal computers] that do not connect to any other computer system including the internet. This [sic] PCs use a Random Number Generator to select the winning numbers.”