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How to Play the Lottery

Insider Lottery Tips

You've read about the different lottery games and how to play them. You've also found several methods of picking lucky numbers. Now it's time to fine-tune your game using this section full of insider tips and techniques. Know what to do and what to avoid. Learn how to set up a lottery-playing budget. Discover different ways to get in touch with your state's lottery. Finally (may the odds be with you), know what to do if you win!

Prudent Precautions
If possible, always buy your own lottery tickets. Don't ask neighbors or friends to pick them up for you. Similarly, don't pick up tickets for others. Don't loan or borrow money for tickets, and don't go halfsies, either. Why? Isn't this a trifling matter -- the same as picking up a loaf of bread for someone at the store? Not quite. If the ticket doesn't win or if the prize is small, then there's usually no problem. But if the ticket turns out to be a jackpot winner, you could have a sticky situation on your hands. At the very least, it could be embarrassing. This little favor for a neighbor now involves millions of dollars.

For instance, maybe your neighbor said she'd pay you the dollar for the ticket later. Fine, you think. What's a dollar? You give her the ticket, and she's now a millionaire. Be honest. Would you perhaps feel you're entitled to part of the windfall? After all, you did buy the ticket with your own money. OK, it wasn't technically your money. It was money you loaned your neighbor. Still, you did go and purchase the ticket, so you might feel you're entitled to some of the winnings.

What if the situation were reversed, and your neighbor had purchased the ticket for you? Maybe you jokingly promised to split the money with her if you won. Are you aware that she might be able take you to court, claiming the two of you made a verbal agreement? No matter what people's good intentions are before the ticket is purchased, not everyone is as honorable as winner Raul Zavaleta. Once the winning numbers are announced, not everyone will, without hesitation, keep his or her promise to split $40 million.

Are you beginning to see the possible repercussions in this? Why not avoid broken friendships, hurt feelings, and even lawsuits? Buy your own tickets, period. It's an entirely different situation when you give a ticket to someone as a gift, or vice versa -- a gift is a gift.

Most people discard their losing scratch-off, Pick 3, and Lotto tickets. After all, what possible use could you have for those scraps of paper? Think again. If you regularly spend a significant amount of money on the lottery, those old tickets might be worth cash to you.

The IRS says you cannot offset losses against winnings and report the difference. For example, if Mary spends $1,600 a year on tickets and wins only $600, she must report the $600 even though her losses amounted to $1,000. According to the tax rules, if you have gambling losses, you can claim them as an itemized deduction, but you cannot deduct more than the winnings reported. So if Mary itemizes her deductions, she can take only $600 as an itemized loss on schedule A.

On the other hand, if Jim spends $600 and wins $1,600, he too must report the $1,600. But if he itemizes, he can claim the entire $600 as a loss on schedule A since he is allowed to report any losses up to $1,600. Ironically, this law helps winners more than it helps losers. So think positively. Think like a winner, and save those old tickets.

In case you live in one of the states that doesn't have a lottery, you may be tempted to enter lotteries in other states. That's fine, provided you go to the area and purchase the ticket in person. There are several federal and state laws concerning the lotteries. One is the U.S. Postal Service regulation that forbids the mailing of unplayed lottery tickets across state lines.

Some states' laws prohibit the sale of tickets by phone, mail, fax, and over the Internet. If your state has a lottery, it makes little sense to enter either out-of-state or foreign lotteries. Chances are you'll find better odds right in your own backyard, without the extra fee or the risk. Can you imagine winning several million dollars only to discover that you haven't actually won it after all? It seems that any time big money is involved, there are those who try to get a piece of the action -- illegally.

You'll frequently see ads online and in magazines and newspapers for books, software, and other media to help you in your goal to win the Lotto. Some of these are reputable businesses and can offer you professionally designed wheeling systems and other strategies that may help better your chances. But if one of these companies claims their product is guaranteed to make you the next Lotto millionaire, ask yourself one very obvious question: If they've managed to solve the riddle of how to win a jackpot, why are they running an ad?

Playing Smart
If you've been playing for any length of time, by now you've surely heard the advice: "Don't play popular numbers." Why? Certain groups or combinations of numbers are played by hundreds or even thousands of people on any one Lotto night. So why would you care about that? Because if you played 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 and those numbers were drawn, there may be thousands of people to split the prize with. In a $5 million jackpot, you could end up with less than a Pick 3 payoff. What are the popular combinations? There are the sequences such as the one just given as well as sequences of multiples of a certain number. One popular sequence, which consists of multiples of the number 5, is 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, and 30. And because the number is considered lucky, people often play the multiples of 7: 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, and 49.

Another less common practice is to use all numbers of the same value. Sometimes people will play all numbers with the value of the number 3: 3, 12, 21, 30, 39, and 48. Suppose your primary number  is 3, because your birthday is March 21. As you previously learned, 21 -- or any number with the value of 3 -- is lucky for you. However, don't use them all on the same play slip. Spread them out over several different plays. Other selections aren't so apparent. What, you might ask, is so common about this combination: 8, 11, 18, 21, 28, and 31? If you fill in these squares on some states' Little Lotto or Lotto play slips, you'll see that these make a zigzag pattern depending on the layout of your play slip.

Many people select numbers that, when marked in the squares, create a design on the play slip. Common patterns are horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines; letters of the alphabet such as X or M; the four corners and center of the play slip; zigzags; and crosses. Even if you do win, playing popular ticket patterns will reduce your share of the jackpot -- sometimes significantly.

A few years ago, the typical five-out-of-five pot for a Florida Fantasy 5 drawing was approximately $20,000. But one night, the payoff for winners who picked five out of five correctly was just a little over $1,500. Why? The winning numbers -- 3, 11, 13, 15, and 23 -- formed a perfect cross. People tend to think alike when it comes to playing numbers, so try to avoid the most logical patterns of play. As for the most popular single numbers (those not part of a popular series), they are 1 through 31 -- the birthday numbers. This is not to say you should avoid playing your birth date.

Just don't make a habit of playing all low numbers on one ticket. Keep in mind that the digits 1 through 9 are even more popular. Keep those to a minimum. It seems there are few hard and fast rules in Lotto, though. There have been multimillion-dollar jackpots in which the winning numbers were all low ones (but since they weren't popular combinations of low numbers, the winners didn't have to split the jackpot with many other winners). Although the results aren't as dramatically disappointing as with popular numbers, another way you may lose out -- even if you win -- is when the jackpot is large. When there is no winner for a while, the prize money rolls over and, in a sort of snowball effect, grows ever larger. The more people buy tickets, the bigger the jackpot grows. And the bigger it grows, the more people buy tickets. Lured by pots of $30 million, $50 million, and higher, players come out of the woodwork. Even those who don't usually play the lottery will play the lottery!

So if you correctly pick five out of six, there may be many more five-out-of-six winners than usual, which may mean less money for you. If the name of the game is to win, and the way to win is to lessen the odds, why join the crowd? Go ahead and buy a ticket for the big-money drawing. But smart players quietly prefer the "small" jackpots, those of only $2 million, $4.5 million, or $6 million. This is called maximizing the value of your prize. If you think about it, those "small" jackpots would be pretty nice prizes to win, too.

Make a Budget
There seems to be nearly as many budgets for lottery play as there are playing strategies. Some believe "when you're hot, you're hot," and when you're on a winning streak, you should continue to bet. You'll be inclined to agree with that, with its theory that some time periods in our lives are more lucky than others. But too many people go about it the wrong way. For example, you may buy $8 worth of scratch-off tickets one morning and win $20 and $5. Not bad, you think. So you then put $5 on the Pick 3 game, purchasing $5 worth. You end up winning $40. Then you decide to place the $25 you got from the instant tickets on the Powerball.

You don't win anything on the Powerball. So, how did you do? You originally spent $8 on the scratch-off tickets. So before you entered the Pick 3, you were $17 ahead. You spent $5 on the Pick 3, so before you entered Powerball, you were $52 ahead. So far, so good. After playing Powerball, you are exactly $27 ahead. After all that excitement, it seems like a letdown, right? Of course, you can always say, "Well, I did come out ahead." Here's what you should have done. You were right in assuming you were on a roll, and you were right to take advantage of it. But instead of placing $25 on Powerball, you should have put only $5 on the game. Then you would still be $47 on the plus side. The mistake you made was a common one: placing the "$25 you won on the scratch-off tickets" on Powerball. The truth is, you didn't win $25 on the instant tickets. Since you had to spend $8 to buy them, you won only $17.

Sometimes we have a knack for conveniently forgetting our original investments. Next time, reinvest only the amount you began with or less. In this case, that would have been $8 or less. The best thing to do is to draw up a plan in which you spend a certain amount per month. Be consistent. Never, for any reason, go over this amount. When you're on a roll, reinvest only the amount you started with. Set aside your regular amount for next month's playing, and put the rest of your profits in the bank, in a drawer, or in a shoe. This idea is used by players in the stock markets and other money markets and is a simple one: Let your profits ride, and cut your losses. Remember that rule whenever you play the lottery, and you'll enjoy the games much more.

Getting in Touch With the Lotteries
 There are several ways of finding out about the lottery. Sometimes, however, you'll need to contact the lottery itself, either directly or indirectly, for answers to your questions. The different states vary as to which medium gives what information. Here's what you can expect to find -- and where:
  • Newsletters. Again, each state differs as to information given. But generally, the publications (you'll find them free at lottery retailers) contain at least some of the following: new games (on-line and instant), prizes remaining on instant games, special promotions, brief winner stories, winning numbers for the past weeks or months, and hot/cold numbers. At the very least, you'll find leaflets explaining how to play the games and information on new games.

  • Phone lines. While some of these may still be referred to as "hotlines," most phone numbers to your state lottery are "customer service lines." Rarely do they give the drawing results, but instead they provide information on claiming a prize, such as the location of the nearest claim center or, in the case of a jackpot, information about the lottery headquarters. You'll find these numbers on the back of your ticket.

  • Web sites. These are now the preferred method to learn about your state's lottery. They generally offer a gold mine of information. Variously, you may discover the legal age to play, games (existing and upcoming), instant games (usually with graphics), odds, playing instructions, times and dates of drawings, and drawing results (some extending several months into the past). You may also read about new winners and learn how to collect your prize money. Some sites offer a Frequently Asked Questions section. If your state offers Mega Millions or Powerball, you'll find either a link or information on it. It's easy to find the Web site. Just look on your ticket.

  • E-mail. Have questions? E-mail them to your state lottery. You'll find the address on the Web site.
If You Win
Before you can win, you must first find out if you hold a winning ticket. Always double-check the date and the numbers on your lottery tickets with the winning numbers for that day's drawing. And if you missed the drawing on television, it's also a good idea to check more than one source. The Michigan Lotto hotline once gave the wrong winning numbers for the Daily 4. The mistake was corrected in a few minutes, but can you imagine the dismay of anyone who destroyed his ticket and later found out he'd won?

And it wouldn't hurt to give that scratch-off ticket another glance before you throw it away just to make sure you haven't beaten the dealer, opened the cash vault, spun 'n' won, bingoed, won for life, or otherwise come into some cash. Incredible as it may seem, literally millions of dollars go unclaimed each year. For whatever reasons, people may get rid of a ticket, lose it, or throw it away by mistake. But their loss can become someone else's gain. Here is some important information for lucky winners:
  • First and foremost: Whether you've won a little or a lot -- even before you're sure you have won -- sign the ticket. Unsigned, the ticket is a bearer instrument. This means it belongs to the bearer just like cash.

  • Don't let time run out. Many states' deadlines for on-line games are 180 days from the date of the drawing. But time limits vary from state to state and from game to game, so check the previously mentioned sources, the back of the play slip, or the back of the instant ticket to make sure.

  • Some states have different rules, but generally you can take your winning ticket that's less than $600 to the lottery retailer, who will pay you the money. Other states (just to complicate matters) set the limit at up to, and including, $600.

  • Again, generally speaking, winning tickets that are $600 or over (but usually not jackpot tickets) may be cashed by taking the ticket to a state claim center. There you'll fill out a claim form and collect your prize. You can find claim center phone numbers or addresses at the retailers, on your state's Web site, or by calling the customer service number, which is usually on the back of your ticket.

  • While some lotteries say you may take care of this by mail, it is not advisable. In the same way, it would be foolish to put a thousand dollars in cash into an envelope and mail it.

  • In the case of jackpots, some states pay in one lump sum, now called cash value option. Others pay by annuity (installments over a period of years). Still others give you a choice. Sometimes this choice must be made when you buy the ticket.

  • The IRS requires lotteries to withhold 25 percent federal tax from prizes more than $5,000. There also may be a smaller state tax withheld.

  • Important: See a tax attorney before collecting the prize. If a jackpot winner dies, heirs will get the money just as any other holding, such as real estate. But unless the deceased has set up legal trusts, inheritance taxes could wipe out nearly the entire fortune.

  • If you win "the big one," as stated earlier, sign the ticket. Keep it in a safe place. Verify that you are indeed the winner. See an attorney. Then contact your state lottery headquarters, who will arrange for a day for you to come in, have your ticket validated, and collect your prize money.

  • Keep a low profile. Aside from the lawyer and close family members, tell no one. Until you've had your ticket validated, you're in a somewhat precarious situation. For your own safety -- not to mention that of the ticket -- the fewer who know, the better.
A couple more pieces of advice: Wear a pair of sunglasses to keep the limelight out of your eyes. Wear a smile for the cameras. You're a winner. Congratulations!

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