Ten secrets of the National Lottery

These 10 tips will help you win bigger prizes from the Lotto.

Since the first draw on 19 November 1994, the National Lottery has become a British obsession. Almost everyone aged 16 and over has had a flutter on the Lotto. Alas, 53 out of every 54 tickets are losers and end up in the bin.

Dumb luck

Of course, the Lotto balls are drawn randomly, which means that every combination of six numbers has an equal chance of being drawn. Therefore, no matter how you choose your numbers, each set of six has exactly the same probability of winning.

Whether you choose 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 (the six smallest integers) or 39, 41, 43, 45, 47 and 49 (the six highest odd numbers under 50), both sets have an equal chance of being drawn: 1 in 13,983,816, to be precise.

Even so, I am certain that my second set of numbers will win a much bigger payout than the first set. That's because, each week, around 10,000 people stubbornly select the numbers one to six. Imagine beating astronomical odds to win the Big One and then walking away with, say, a mere £40,000!

As a former mathematician, I'm very interested in the Lotto and the people's behaviour towards it. Hence, I've come up these 10 tips aimed at helping you to win more when your numbers come up:

1. Don't play

In the year to 31 March 2011, Camelot generated ticket sales of £5.8 billion across all its games, including the Lotto, EuroMillions and scratchcards. This was a record high, beating the £5.5 billion collected in 1997/98.

However, Camelot paid out only £2.9 billion to lucky winners, just under half (49.5%) of the stakes collected. What this means is that the Lotto does a great job of turning £2 into 99p.

The humble laws of arithmetic tell us that the Lotto is one of the worst wagers around. As a result, the best way to maximise your returns is not to play.

2. Ditch the days

A large proportion of Lotto punters use the same set of 'lucky' numbers each week. Often, these include birthdays of family members and friends. In other words, a high proportion of players pick lots of numbers from one to 31 every week.

To maximise the likelihood of winning a bigger jackpot, pick two or more numbers between 32 and 49. This group contains the least-picked numbers chosen on playslips. Thus, when you win with high numbers, you pocket higher amounts.

3. Leave months alone

As birthdays are popular with punters, the numbers one to 12 are picked very heavily, as they represent the 12 months from January to December. Among these dozen numbers, 'lucky' seven stands out as the most popular number.

Hence, don't choose too many numbers under 13 and avoid number seven.

4. Don't be triskaidekaphobic

Triskaidekaphobia (Greek for 'three', 'ten' and 'morbid fear') is an irrational fear of the number 13. Indeed, triskaidekaphobia is said to be the world's most common superstition.

Amusingly, number 13 is the second-least-drawn ball in the history of the Lotto, appearing just 171 times as a main ball in 1,613 draws. (The least-drawn ball is 20, drawn just 161 times as a main ball.)

Millions of Lotto players refuse to pick 13, which they regard as an 'unlucky' number. This is all the more reason for smart players to include this unpopular ball.

5. Play Superdraws

Every so often, Camelot announces special Superdraws with guaranteed jackpots. Usually, these coincide with celebrations such as Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve.

Camelot uses its cash reserves to boost Superdraw jackpots, with guaranteed payouts of £10 million and above. With such big payouts on offer, these draws have an edge over the standard Wednesday and Saturday draws.

6. Play Rollovers

Likewise, when a jackpot isn't won and rolls over into the next draw, the big prize quickly gets very large. Double Rollovers happen quite often, but the first Triple Rollover took almost ten years, finally arriving on 29 May 2004, when six players each won a tidy £3.7 million.

Earlier this year, Camelot changed its rules, allowing Quadruple Rollovers. Alas, the first one could be decades away.

7. Play online

Recently, I watched a Channel 4 documentary called Jackpots and Jinxes: Lottery Stories. In one interview, one unlucky man explained how he won the Lotto jackpot, but could not produce his ticket. Despite protests from the public and MPs, his prize went unclaimed.

In almost 17 years of the Lotto, £1.1 billion of winnings have gone unclaimed. To avoid this nightmare, simply play the Lotto online. With over six million people registered, Camelot operates the biggest online lottery in the world.

Your numbers are recorded on Camelot's database with your personal details, so there's no worry about lost tickets. Also, you get an automated email informing you you're a winner and instructing you to check your account.

[Useful: Play the National Lottery online]

8. Trust blind luck

As the Lotto is random, random-number selections have the same chance of being drawn as your 'favourite' numbers. If I were to play the Lotto, I would trust to blind luck by choosing a Lucky Dip.

9. Don't join a syndicate

To win a big prize, it's best to play alone. Don't join a syndicate or other Lotto group. Syndicates play more lines and thus have greater odds of winning, but winners are forced to split their reward equally, reducing individual payouts.

10. How jackpot winners pick numbers

To date, the National Lottery has created over 2,600 millionaire and multi-millionaires. In February and March 2009, Camelot interviewed 100 of these lucky winners to find out how they picked their winning numbers. Here are the most common responses, plus a few unusual replies, in A-Z order:

  • Ages of family/friends
  • Birthday dates
  • Car registration plates
  • Door numbers
  • Dreamt them
  • Lucky Dip from machine
  • Picked out of a hat
  • Ping-pong balls in washing machine
  • Random numbers chosen by winner
  • Telephone numbers

The weirdest way to pick numbers is probably that used by Billy Gibbons of Audlem, Cheshire. His pet chicken, Kiev, walked over Billy's calculator, generating five numbers which won Billy £1,297. Billy himself picked the sixth number, which sadly didn't come up.

The biggest Lotto winner

Camelot gives 12% of the money it collects as a tax to HM Treasury. In 2010/11, the Treasury's take was £699 million and, in total, Camelot has handed over roughly £16 billion to the government. Thus, the biggest guaranteed winner from the Lotto is the chancellor, George Osborne. No surprises there!

How lucky have your balls been?

Finally, this table shows how often each ball has been picked as a main ball:

Ball Times picked Ball Times picked Ball Times picked Ball Times picked Ball Times picked
1 187 11 217 21 176 31 214 41 171
2 204 12 196 22 188 32 210 42 196
3 197 13 171 23 218 33 216 43 220
4 193 14 183 24 199 34 197 44 222
5 185 15 179 25 214 35 205 45 197
6 207 16 178 26 191 36 187 46 190
7 188 17 199 27 208 37 180 47 209
8 189 18 198 28 197 38 225 48 201
9 209 19 196 29 190 39 206 49 198
10 196 20 161 30 207 40 213

For the record, the six most-drawn balls are 38, 44, 23, 43, 11 and 33 and the six least-drawn balls are 20, 13, 41, 21, 16 and 15. Obviously, over millions of draws, these discrepancies should largely be ironed out, with balls cropping up at roughly the same frequency.

Once again, always remember that you cannot beat the Lotto, because it is absolutely random. However, choosing unpopular numbers will help you to beat other players, thus helping to bag bigger prizes when your numbers come up.