Over the past 50 years, the New Jersey Lottery has paid out over $42 billion in jackpots to lucky winners of their draw and instant games.

Meanwhile, over $28 billion in lottery revenue has gone into the state coffers, largely bolstering NJ's public pension system in addition to supporting numerous organizations and programs.

That is an astounding amount of money. In fact, the lottery is the number one non-tax revenue generator for the state of New Jersey, according to their 2022 Annual Report.

Playing the Odds

I play the lottery once a week: I buy a single scratch-off lotto ticket after grocery shopping. Sometimes I win a few bucks, which go right into our family vacation fund. And win or lose, you have to love the gambling-induced dopamine hit.

Obviously, luck is the paramount factor in deciding whether someone wins or loses playing the lottery. The system is strictly regulated, controlled, and randomized to prevent any cheating of the system.

The luck factor is especially present in "pick numbers" draw games, like New Jersey's Pick 3, Pick 4, Jersey Cash 5, Pick 6, and Quick Draw. And of multi-state lottery games that are available to play in NJ, like Powerball and Mega Millions. (You could argue there is a tiny bit of skill involved in the big money games to reduce the chances of "splitting" a jackpot, but that's another post for another day.)

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Here, I want to focus on scratch-offs. It is the most popular of the NJ Lottery's offerings, with $2.2 billion in sales in 2022. Yes, Lady Luck is still front and center. But I hypothesize there is a small element of skill that can be applied to selecting which instant scratcher games to play. Thanks to our old friend, probability and statistics.

The bottom line: Not all scratch-off lottery games are created equal.

The NJ Lottery is kind enough to offer a huge cache of public data on the status and prize payouts of instant scratcher games. It gives a daily snapshot of which games have which prizes left, allowing you to track the tiny changes in the ever-changing odds-of-winning.

I dug into that data (using a web scraper, Python, and Excel) aiming to determine: 1.) Which scratch-off games are the best to play right now? 2.) Which are the worst? And 3.) Are there any patterns or themes to keep in mind, if you are a regular scratch-off player.

How the Analysis Works

All the facts, figures, calculations, and conjectures I make here are based on data pulled from the NJ Lottery web site as of Sunday, February 4, 2024.

There are endless ways to analyze games of chance, and calculate your likelihood of winning big, winning anything, or coming up empty. I will look at odds of winning (the number of winning tickets divided by the number of total tickets), the number and size of jackpot prizes remaining, the age of a game, and special features that may make a scratch-off game more (or less) appealing.

The most important quantity I will mention is a game theory calculation called "expected value". EV essentially represents the total amount you would win if you were to buy every single lottery ticket of a specific game remaining in circulation. The expected value will always be less than what you paid for all those tickets, since the lottery does have to post a profit. But the closer EV is to the ticket price, the bigger your advantage is in playing that game (over others with a lower EV).

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There are also some important assumptions and stipulations I have to make:

—The data on the NJ Lottery web site is based on the number of tickets redeemed, not sold. The number of "losers" still out there in the world is unknown. I'm working on the reasonable assumption that the ratio of winners-remaining vs. losers-remaining are comparable.

—I am only talking about instant scratch-off games. As I mentioned, draw games are a completely different animal, much more subject to the laws of luck and pure probability.

—I am also not looking at the "second chance drawing" program, which allows holders of losing tickets to enter a free online sweepstakes for a consolation jackpot.

—Free tickets are treated as cash prizes. That is usually what is offered when I have redeemed such a prize in the past. Such an assumption makes the analysis cleaner and easier too.

—Games are retired and restarted on occasion, with a fresh prize pool and ticket design. The NJ Lottery is a marketing and psychology machine. I am only analyzing the current generation of active games available for sale in February 2024, according to the NJ Lottery web site.

—This analysis and its conclusions is for informational and entertainment purposes only. Whether or not you employ these strategies in your own lottery play is done at your own risk. Compulsive gambling can become a serious addiction — please reach out for help if you need it.

General Statistics

Number of active scratch-off games... 61

Price levels... $1, $2, $3, $5, $10, $20, $30
Note: In the past, the NJ Lottery has also offered instant games for $25 and $50.

Prize levels... There are 49 possible prizes on active scratch-off games, ranging from $1 to $3 million.

Overall prize pool... $2,417,883,472

Overall odds of winning... 23.6%, almost 1 in 4
This will serve as a useful average benchmark when we talk about the "best" and "worst" games below.

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The Best of the Best

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Playing the brand new $1,000,000 Platinum Payout game for $20, over the long run, you would get about 58% of your money back. That's as good as it gets. Honorable mention: $1,000,000 Diamond Spectacular ($20), Power 50X ($30).

For the record, in doing the research for this article, I found a lotto machine stocked with the $1,000,000 Platinum Payout game. I had to buy it.

Not a winner.

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Even "cheap" games can have decent payouts, relative to the price you pay. I'm pleased to see my personal favorite scratch-off, the current generation of poker, does well in this category.

Earning an honorable mention, the best expected value in the $2 price category currently is a game called Hit $50. (More on that game in a moment.)

The Worst of the Worst

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With only a 41% expected value, my analysis earmarked Super Crossword ($5) as a difficult game to find success with. Second place is Crossword ($3) and third place is $250,000 Crossword ($10). Hmm, I would say this revelation raises an eyebrow about the Lottery's crossword games in general.

If You Win, You Win Big

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This funky calculation is for those who don't like "little" scratch-off prizes. Again, I am using the Expected Value formula. But ignoring all losing tickets. So this quantity can be thought of as the "average prize winnings".

The top choice here is surprisingly a $2 ticket — Hit $50 — which offers an average of 3x payout if you win.

Best Odds

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If you're looking for purely the best ratio of winners to losers, then the $30 Colossal Crossword game is your friend with 29.4% of all tickets bringing home "some" prize. Honorable mention goes to two separate versions of a $20 game called Crossword Bonanza, with 28.1% odds of winning.

So big-ticket crossword games actually are among the best of the crop.

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A neat little $5 game called LOTERIA Grande has 25.7% odds of winning, the best of all $1-$5 games active in the NJ Lottery database.

Worst Odds

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The crossword games strike again. $3 Crossword only offers a 20.4% chance of winning.

(Note: This actually isn't the worst odds among all 61 games — I'll cover one that is far worse in a moment.)

Biggest Top Prize

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I think we can all agree that winning $3 million on a scratch-off would be incredible. And life-changing.

Only one game offers such a prize.

There are another 7 scratch-off games that have a top prize of $1 million or higher. Notable in that group is $1,000,000 Spectacular, which is a $10 ticket. (The rest cost $20 or $30.)

Lowest Top Prize

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A one-dollar scratch-off lottery ticket may be perfect to slip into a birthday card or Christmas stocking. But don't expect a grandiose prize. Both active $1 games — Gnome for the Holidays and Loose Change — only have jackpots of $500. (Not the lowest of the low, believe it or not — again, a special case is coming.)

Honorable mentions: $2000 Loaded ($2) and $5000 Loaded ($50), where the jackpot is in the title. That's not much to get excited about.

All Jackpots Still in Play

It is worth noting the six games that, as of 2/4/23, have all their top jackpot prizes still in play:

$1,000,000 Platinum Payout ($20): 3 tickets worth $1 million
$500,000 Gold Payout ($10): 3 tickets worth $500K
$200,000 Silver Payout ($5): 3 tickets worth $200K
$10,000 Bronze Payout ($2): 6 tickets worth $10K
Birthday Surprise #1825 ($2): 3 tickets worth $10K
Hit $50 ($2): 3 tickets worth $10K

No Jackpots Left

On the flip side, the following ten games have zero top jackpot prizes left in circulation. In other words, you could not pay me to play these games:

Crossword Bonanza ($20): 0 tickets left worth $400K (3 claimed)
$500 Frenzy ($5): 0 tickets left worth $200K (4 claimed)
Power 5X ($5): 0 tickets left worth $200K (3 claimed)
Red 7's Doubler ($5): 0 tickets left worth $200K (3 claimed)
Peppermint Payout X20 ($5): 0 tickets left worth $100K (3 claimed)
Super Crossword ($5): 0 tickets left worth $50K (6 claimed)
Big Money Spectacular ($2): 0 tickets left worth $30K (5 claimed)
LOTERIA ($3): 0 tickets left worth $30K (4 claimed)
Crossword ($3): 0 tickets left worth $20K (3 claimed)
Birthday Surprise #1760 ($2): 0 tickets left worth $10K (20 claimed)

Newest Games

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When selecting which scratch-off to buy and play, I always look for something new, fresh, and unique. It's more fun that way. And, more importantly, there are naturally more prizes available in a brand new game.

The NJ Lottery introduced a series of four new games at the start of February: $1,000,000 Platinum Payout ($20), $200,000 Silver Payout ($5), $500,000 Gold Payout ($10), and $10,000 Bronze Payout ($2).

Oldest Games

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I am actually shocked there is an active game that has not been retired after almost three years in play. Super 50X debuted in April 2021, over a thousand days ago. The $10 ticket still has one unclaimed $500K prize out there somewhere. It is actually one of the greediest games in the NJ Lottery system, as only 62% of revenue goes into the prize pool. (Average is 68%.)

The next oldest game is Super 8s ($10), which began in June 2022. Followed by Triple Double Diamond ($5) from July 2022.

Special Case #1: Win for Life

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I remember when the NJ Lottery first offered a "Win for Life" scratch-off game in the 1990s. It was a smash-hit immediately. And remains one of the top sellers.

I have to treat the $3 Win for Life game separately, because you have a choice when you win. You can either take the promised prize of $5,000/Month for Life, payable in 25+ annual payments with a minimum value of $1.5 million. Or you could opt for a single lump sum payout of $957,400.

That ambiguity in the total jackpot amount negates the usefulness of expected value equation. I will mention that, despite the prospect of big prizes, Win for Life has one of the worst overall odds-of-winning, at about 1-in-5.

Special Case #2: The Bigger Spin

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Imagine scratching off a lottery ticket, and the prize reads "BIG SPIN EVENT". That means you get to spin a giant prize wheel, at a huge public venue, for a jackpot between $75K and $400K. How exciting!

Again, the varying jackpot makes an expected value calculation inaccurate and irrelevant. Better odds-of-winning on this game, around 1-in-4.

Special Case #3: Win Either $100 or $200

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And here it is, ladies and gentlemen. The weirdest active game in the entire New Jersey Lottery database.

The $20 Win Either $100 or $200 game is exactly what it sounds like. You either win the "jackpot" of $200 (2.8% odds). Or you take home "second place" of $100 (8.0% odds). Or you get nothing (89.2% odds).

10% is the worst overall odds-of-winning of all active scratch-off games, by far. And it offers the lowest "top prize" of all games at just $200.

However, the expected value is about 61% of the ticket price. Believe it or not, that is the best of all active scratch-off games.

I really don't know how to characterize or rank this one. Which is why it gets its own special treatment here.

If I saw this game out in a lottery vending machine, out in the wild, would I buy it? That's a definite maybe.

Conclusions

As expected, there are a few resounding patterns and themes discovered through this analysis:

Bigger risk, bigger reward. Not only do higher-price games have a more lucrative prize table, but the odds and expected values are notably better too.

Crosswords are a mixed bag. Crossword puzzle games are popular, because they're the most "cerebral" of the scratcher games. It takes several minutes to play. It seems that low-dollar Crosswords games are among the worst in that category. But high-dollar Crosswords games are among the best. Whether or not that distinction is deliberate is uncertain.

A "loaded" gun. Watch out for games marketed as being "loaded" with prizes of a certain dollar amount. Such games are prone to have a disappointingly low top jackpot prize or significantly lowered expected value as a result.

Gimmicks can be good. Who doesn't love playing a game with a unique twist or theme? Those games — such as those offering a big wheel spin or annuity prize — actually tend to be among the top, statistically.

Beware old games. You do have a better chance of finding active jackpots still in play with a newer, fresher, unfamiliar game.

Remember, lottery players, to always bet with your head, not over it. Gambling problem? Call 1-800-GAMBLER.

Good luck!

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Dan Zarrow is Chief Meteorologist for Townsquare Media New Jersey. Check out Dan's weather blog or follow him on Facebook for your latest weather forecast updates.

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