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Your lottery odds are worse than you think

A man scratched a lottery ticket at Tan-Thang Market on Broadway in Chelsea.
A man scratched a lottery ticket at Tan-Thang Market on Broadway in Chelsea.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In big, bold letters, the state lottery’s $30 instant game tickets trumpet the odds of winning — better than one in three.

But there’s a catch. Those odds apply only if you consider breaking even — getting $30 back on a $30 ticket — to be winning.

Across its array of scratch tickets and draw games, the state lottery defines ties as wins, significantly inflating their claims about the chances of success and the percentage of profits that are returned to gamblers — a practice critics say is highly deceptive.

In the $30 instant game called Supreme Millions, for instance, almost 40 percent of winning tickets are draws, leaving players no better off than before they started playing. Take those away, and the odds of winning drop substantially to 1 in 4.2, down from the lottery’s claim that the odds are better than one in three, according to a Globe analysis.

Ties occur when a prize is identical to the cost of a ticket, meaning players break even but do not actually win money.

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Including ties in calculating the odds of winning is standard in the nation’s multibillion-dollar lottery industry. In Massachusetts, the lottery is a moneymaking machine, delivering about $1 billion in annual revenue to cities and towns, and bases much of its marketing efforts on its friendly odds and generous prizes.

But critics say the practice gives players a false sense that the odds are not so heavily stacked against them.

“Reasonable consumers would not equate a tie with a win,” said Mark Gottlieb, the executive director of Northeastern University School of Law’s Public Health Advocacy Institute, which opposes lotteries as a regressive tax. “In most games and sports there are three categories for play outcomes: wins, losses, or ties. When the payout is equal to the wager, that is a tie. Nobody has won.”

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The lottery defends its calculations, and said players are well aware that winning back the original bet is counted as a win.

“I don’t see it as deceptive — it’s winning a prize,” said Christian Teja, spokesman for the Massachusetts State Lottery. “You are able to redeem that ticket for cash. It’s not the kind of win that you might want, but it’s still a win. Everyone knows that.”

Teja likened playing the lottery to casino gambling, when players may enjoy a number of modest wins before running through their spending allotment.

“The player wins a lot, even though in the end his money is gone,” he said. “There’s a lot of winning experienced along the way.”

Jeff Holyfield, spokesman for the Michigan Lottery, said players typically focus on winning the major jackpots, and realize the odds are not in their favor. “Deceptive? It all depends on how you look at it,” he said. “And the way we look at it, all prizes that go to players are wins.”

In Massachusetts, the lottery boasts that more than 80 percent of Supreme Millions ticket sales are returned in prizes. But when ties are excluded, the payout drops to about 68 percent. The same pattern holds true for all instant games.

Across all its games, the state lottery pays out more than 70 percent of ticket sales, which it bills as the highest percentage in the country. Not counting ties, it dips well below that mark.

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“The worst part about the deception is that it’s the state doing it,” said Allen Nitschelm, who publishes a local blog called Acton Forum and who wrote about this issue in 2014. “People trust the state. But maybe they shouldn’t.”

Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, said state lotteries rely on break-even prizes to report better odds and entice players into plowing more money into the game.

“The $30 gets recycled into the next bet,” he said. “The whole thing is designed precisely to get you to cough up the money on the next bet.”

The practice is hardly surprising, he said. Lotteries succeed to begin with only by swaying people to act against their own interests, he said.

“Lotteries are selling hope and it is flat-out a losing proposition,” he said.

At a North Quincy convenience store, most lottery players said they were unaware that the lottery counted ties as wins, and thought it was misleading.

“They are taking advantage of us,” said Ken, who did not want his full name used. “When you get your money back you didn’t lose, so you are happy about that. But you didn’t win, that’s for sure.”

But players admitted that having a clearer idea of the odds would hardly be a deterrent.

A man named Joe, who called himself a compulsive gambler, said he loses so regularly that a tie has come to feel like a win.

“If I break even, I feel good,” he said. “If I don’t lose, that’s a good thing for me. Because the lottery is a losing proposition.”

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Sitting in his car outside the store, Joe lowered his head and scratched a ticket. Moments later, he hopped out of the car and back into the store, returning with a fresh round.

“It’s my only vice,” he explained.


Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.

Omission: An earlier version of this story omitted a quote from Allen Nitschelm, who publishes a blog called Acton Forum and wrote about the issue of the lottery’s odds.