Chances are you won't win a million

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The Independent Online
When all other investment strategies fail, you can alwayshave a punt on the National Lottery or the football pools. But which form of gambling gives you the best chance? Direct comparisons are not easy as eachgame works differently. However, these tips should help you approach your next flutter with some idea of the odds you face.

National Lottery

Minimum stake: pounds 1

Chances of winning pounds 1m: 14m-1 against (these are the rough odds of winning the jackpot)

Draws per year: 52

The National Lottery takes about pounds 90m a week, half of which is paid in prizes. This means that if you play regularly, then over time you are likely to lose halfthe money you stake (although in practice, because of the way the prize structure is skewed, most people lose all the money they stake in any one draw).

Suppose you had an initial stake of pounds 1,000. On average, after one week's play, you would have only pounds 500, after two weeks pounds 250 and so on. After 10 weeks of Lottery play, your initial pounds 1,000 would be worth just pounds 1.05 on average. Writing in the journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs recently, Tim Congdon, one of the Chancellor's "wise men" economic advisers, said: "Described in these terms, the National Lottery is little better than legalised fraud."

People with three matching numbers win pounds 10 each. Of the money left in the prize pool after they have been paid, the jackpot (six numbers), earns 52 per cent; five numbers plus bonus ball, 16 per cent; five numbers, 10 per cent; and four numbers, 22 per cent in total. Since its launch, the Lottery has paid out pounds 2.25bn in prizes to 91.55 million winners - an average of pounds 24.59 each

Football pools

Minimum stake: 5p

Chances of winning pounds 1m: 6m-1 against on a pounds 1 stake

Pools days per year: 52

Like the Lottery, the precise prizes paid out by the pools companies each week will depend on the amount bet that week and between how many people the prizes must be shared.

Dr Barry Blight, who helped launch the Lottery, used the same software to analyse the chances of winning pounds 1m on the pools with a pounds 1 stake.

Players place 10 crosses against their selection of the week's 58 football matches, hoping to find the eight score draws that bring a jackpot. The most common stake is 60p, which at 1.3p per line gives you 45 chances to win. In 1994-95, the pools companies raked in stake money of pounds 822.9m, of which 26 per cent (pounds 215.2m) was paid in prizes.

Premium Bonds

Minimum stake: pounds 100

Chances of winning pounds 1m: 64m-1 against (for the minimum pounds 100 stake)

Chances to win per year: 12

Changes to the Premium Bond rules next month improve the odds for winning the bigger prizes at the expense of the smaller ones. National Savings, which runs the Premium Bonds draw, pays out 4.75 per cent of the total value of bonds in prizes each year. Assuming you held the maximum stake of pounds 20,000 and won the average 13 prizes a year, you would get an annual return of perhaps pounds 950.

Horse racing

Minimum stake: Often pounds 2

Chance of winning pounds 1m: Zero on all but the very largest bets

Chances to win per year: Approximately 7,000

Your chances of winning money at the races will vary from one race to another and from one bookmaker to the next.

But there is one simple calculation you can perform which will tell you how much a bookie is "over round" - how big a profit margin he is working to. Take the example of a four-horse race with the following odds: Glue Factory 4-1, Punters' Peril 3-1, Milk Round 2-1, and Catfood Express 1- 1. Add 1 to each of the numbers on the left-hand side of the odds and divide the answer into 100.

This gives you Glue Factory 20 per cent (100 divided by 5), Punters' Peril 25 per cent, Milk Round 33 per cent and Catfood Express 50 per cent. Add up those percentages and you get 128 per cent. This means the bookie is giving himself a 28 per cent profit margin.

The Tote takes the total amount placed by people on each race, deducts an average of 19 per cent, and pays the rest to punters with winning tickets.

Slot machines

Minimum stake: 10p

Chance of winning pounds 1m: Zero

Chances to win per year: Infinite

There is no legal minimum payout on fruit machines but the industry's code of practice says machines should pay out at least 73 per cent of their take. Most machines in pubs will pay out about 82 per cent of their take.

Standard fruit machines can pay out a maximum pounds 4 in cash or pounds 8 in tokens. In July, all-cash machines will be introduced which will be able to pay out up to pounds 10 in cash. Jackpot machines found in private clubs and casinos can pay out up to pounds 250.