The Mega Millions lottery is one of the biggest multi-state lottery games in the United States. With jackpots starting at $40 million and often climbing to over $1 billion, it’s no wonder that people flock to buy Mega Millions tickets when the prizes get large. But before you start dreaming about what you would do with hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s important to understand your real chances of winning.
Many people assume that the odds of winning Mega Millions are fixed, but that’s not entirely accurate. While the overall odds of winning any prize are 1 in 24, the actual odds of winning the jackpot can vary based on a few factors. In this article, we’ll explain how the Mega Millions lottery works, discuss the different prize levels and odds, and show you how the jackpot odds can change from draw to draw.
How the Mega Millions Lottery Works
Mega Millions is coordinated by the Multi-State Lottery Association and is offered in 45 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. To play, you pick six numbers from two separate pools of numbers:
- 5 numbers from 1 to 70 (the white balls)
- 1 number from 1 to 25 (the gold Mega Ball)
You can choose your own numbers or select Easy Pick and let the computer randomly assign numbers for you.
For each Mega Millions drawing, five white balls are drawn from the first pool and the Mega Ball is drawn from the second pool. To win the jackpot, you must match all six numbers drawn. Other smaller prizes are available for matching some, but not all six numbers.
The drawings take place every Tuesday and Friday evening at 11 p.m. ET. Ticket sales close at least one hour before the drawings, so make sure to buy your tickets early!
Mega Millions Prize Levels and Odds
There are nine different ways you can win a prize in Mega Millions. The prize amounts vary based on ticket sales and interest rates. Here are the different prize tiers and the odds of winning each one:
|Average Odds (1 in)
|5 white balls + Mega Ball
|5 white balls
|4 white balls + Mega Ball
|4 white balls
|3 white balls + Mega Ball
|3 white balls
|2 white balls + Mega Ball
|1 white ball + Mega Ball
|Mega Ball only
As you can see, the jackpot is by far the hardest prize to win, at over 300 million to 1 odds. You are much more likely to win one of the smaller prizes like $10 for matching just the Mega Ball.
The overall odds of winning any Mega Millions prize are 1 in 24. This remains constant for every drawing. But as you’ll learn next, the jackpot odds can fluctuate.
How the Jackpot Odds Change
While the general odds of winning a Mega Millions prize always stay the same, the jackpot odds actually change from drawing to drawing based on a few factors:
The Mega Millions jackpot starts at $40 million and continues growing based on ticket sales and interest rates until someone wins it. As the jackpot rises, more people tend to buy tickets, thinking the potential payout is worth the long odds. This increases the overall number of combinations covered for a particular drawing.
More combinations mean reduced odds of winning. When the jackpot is $40 million, your odds of winning it by matching all six numbers are about 1 in 302 million. But if the jackpot climbs to $1 billion, your odds of winning drop to roughly 1 in 302 billion because millions more people have bought tickets.
For very large jackpots, it’s possible for multiple winning tickets to split the top prize. In July 2022, two people matched all six numbers to split a $1.337 billion jackpot. When there are multiple winners, the jackpot amount is divided evenly amongst them. But the odds of winning are based on matching all six numbers, not the ultimate jackpot payout. So multiple winners mean the odds were actually more favorable for matching the winning numbers than if there had only been one winner.
If no one matches all six Mega Millions numbers, the jackpot rolls over to the next drawing and continues growing. The more consecutive draws without a jackpot winner, the larger the top prize becomes. And as mentioned already, jackpot size directly impacts the odds of winning. The more rolls without a winner, the worse the odds become on subsequent drawings.
So in summary, while the overall 1 in 24 odds of winning any Mega Millions prize stays fixed, the specific 302 million+ odds of hitting the jackpot fluctuate drawing to drawing based on how many people play, whether there are multiple winners, and the number of rollovers. But no matter what, your odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot are exceedingly small, especially when the prize grows very large.
Other Ways Odds Can Change
In addition to the factors already discussed, there are a couple other ways the Mega Millions odds can be tweaked.
Number of Balls
When the game began in 1996, players chose 5 out of 50 numbers and a Mega Ball from 1 to 36. This made the starting jackpot odds roughly 1 in 135 million. The pools have gradually increased over time to their current configuration of 70 main numbers and 25 Mega Balls. Expanding the number selection pools directly lowered the odds of winning.
Future iterations of Mega Millions may include even larger number pools, further diminishing the jackpot odds. No definitive changes have been announced, but lottery officials review the game mechanics every few years and have the ability to adjust the parameters if needed.
In most states, Mega Millions players can pay an extra $1 for the Megaplier option which multiples non-jackpot prizes by up to 5 times. The Megaplier numbers are drawn in a separate pool right before the main numbers. While it does not impact jackpot odds, the Megaplier can significantly improve your odds of winning a secondary prize.
Factoring in Real-World Odds
The calculated jackpot odds represent your chances of winning if you purchase a single set of numbers for one drawing. But in reality, people often buy multiple tickets with different number combinations for the same drawing. Some even play every drawing, sometimes with hundreds or thousands of tickets at once.
The online lottery subscription service Jackpocket analyzed the purchase patterns of their biggest Mega Millions players. They found on average:
- Players buy 17 tickets for a single drawing
- The most loyal players purchase 365 tickets per drawing
- One player bought 12,603 tickets for a single $1.05 billion jackpot
Buying more tickets gives you more number combinations and therefore more chances to win. Playing every drawing also increases your lifetime odds. While winning is still extremely unlikely, loyal players who buy a significant number of tickets do meaningfully increase their odds over a short-term casual player with just a ticket or two each few weeks.
Does Probability Theory Apply to Mega Millions?
There is debate around whether games of pure chance like Mega Millions follow the laws of probability theory. Some mathematicians argue lottery drawings are independent events with a fixed probability, so past drawings have no bearing on future outcomes. Based on probability theory, your odds of winning never actually improve regardless of how many times you play.
Others point out that probability assumes true randomness, whereas real world systems may not be truly random. They suggest it is feasible to witness “unlikely” streaks of numbers that deviate from expected probabilities. So some players look for patterns and trends in past drawings that may inform number choices with better odds, even though the official calculated odds remain unchanged.
Ultimately there is no strategy that can overcome the extremely long jackpot odds. Mega Millions results are determined by mechanical ball drawings, which while not perfect, are as statistically random as feasibly possible. Your best odds come from buying more tickets, not from picking certain numbers. But some players still enjoy looking for patterns and testing unproven theories to maximize their chances of getting lucky.
Changes to Improve Your Odds
We’ve covered how the jackpot odds fluctuate and how loyal players can improve their real-world chances of winning by buying large quantities of tickets. Here are a few other hypothetical changes that could improve your Mega Millions odds:
- Add an extra main number pick (choose 6 from 70 instead of 5 from 70) – This would improve jackpot odds to around 1 in 30 million.
- Eliminate the Mega Ball and pick 6 numbers from a pool of 70 – Jackpot odds would become around 1 in 17 million.
- Go back to selecting 5 from 50 main numbers – Your odds would increase to about 1 in 135 million.
- Only play when the jackpot is low – Lower jackpots mean fewer tickets sold and better odds.
- Form a lottery pool or syndicate – Combining money allows the group to afford more number combinations.
Of course, none of these changes are actually available to players. The Mega Millions consortium periodically reviews the game format but has shown no signs of significantly adjusting the matrix to make winning markedly easier. Any changes would likely go in the opposite direction of lowering odds even more by expanding the number pools.
While we can speculate, your only real options for improving your slim chances of hitting the jackpot are simply buying more tickets or only playing when the top prize is small. There is no secret trick that can overcome the extremely long 300+ million to 1 odds. Winning Mega Millions takes a tremendous amount of sheer luck!
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some common questions about the Mega Millions odds and probabilities:
How do the Mega Millions odds compare to other big lottery games?
Mega Millions and Powerball have similar odds since they are both played with number pools in the same range. Powerball odds are 1 in 292 million for the jackpot. Some state lotteries have slightly better odds, while national games in other countries may have longer odds than Mega Millions. Overall, most large lotteries fall in the range of 100 million to 300 million to 1 odds for the top prize.
Can the odds ever be guaranteed for a drawing?
No, the calculations used to determine odds are based on the probabilities of certain numbers being chosen, but there is no way to guarantee those numbers will actually be drawn. The published odds are a theoretical average over an extremely large number of drawings. In any individual drawing, there is always variability where the true odds could end up longer or shorter.
Do Hot and Cold numbers impact the odds?
Players who analyze Hot and Cold trends often believe some numbers have higher odds of being drawn based on past frequency. In reality, every number has an equal chance of being chosen in each drawing. Short-term trends are still probabilistic and offer no reliable advantage in predicting upcoming numbers. In the long run, all numbers are expected to be drawn equally.
Why not let the jackpot keep growing forever?
From a player perspective, unlimited growth would maximize the potential jackpot. But extremely large jackpots also require long odds in the 300+ billion range to keep drawings profitable for the lottery. At a certain point, growing prizes and longer odds starts to significantly reduce ticket purchases and player motivation. So lotteries set a cut-off where jackpots stop rolling over and are reset to the base amount to restart momentum. Currently, Mega Millions caps the jackpot growth at $1.5 billion based on market research around optimal prize incentive levels.
Can I improve my odds by picking unusual number combinations?
No. All number combinations have exactly the same odds of being chosen. Tickets with random computer-generated numbers have the same probability as meticulously chosen combinations based on supposed patterns. The luck is the same for every possible set of 5 main numbers and 1 Mega Ball. Playing less popular combinations does not increase your chances in any way. The odds are entirely unaffected by your personal number picking strategy.
Why not let players choose 6 or 7 numbers from the main pool?
Adding an extra main number pick would improve the jackpot odds into the low tens of millions. However, longer odds translate to bigger jackpots which drive ticket sales. The consortium chooses number pool sizes to balance player excitement over maximizing odds. Their market research shows 5/70 main numbers plus the Mega Ball maximizes player interest and lottery profitability. Odds much better than 1 in 300 million would likely suppress potential jackpot sizes too much.
Mega Millions offers life-changing jackpots but very long odds of actually winning the top prize. While the general 1 in 24 chance of winning any prize always stays fixed, the jackpot odds fluctuate from drawing to drawing based on ticket sales volume, rolls without a winner, and potential multiple winners splitting the jackpot. As the jackpot grows, the odds get worse.
Some players try to improve their slim chances by finding lucky numbers, buying more tickets at once, or playing only when the prizes are smaller. But in reality no strategy can overcome the core odds which are always at least hundreds of millions to 1. The lottery operators occasionally tweak parameters like number pool sizes, but significant odds improvements seem unlikely. At the end of the day, winning requires a tremendous amount of good fortune no matter what. But for many people, the excitement of the dreaming is still enough reason to play.