By Randy Ray
The California Lottery is also known as the California State Lottery. It’s one of the older state lotteries in the country, having launched in 1985 after the passage of the California State Lottery Act in 1984.
On this page, you’ll find complete details for how to play all the games listed above. You’ll also find details about where and how to buy tickets and claim any prizes you might win. Finally, the page offers some historical context related to the California State Lottery.
The mission of the California State Lottery is to provide supplemental funds to California’s public school system. According to the official site, 95 cents of every dollar spent on the California lottery goes back to the community in the form of funding for various aspects of public education.
Since 1985, the California Lottery has paid more than $37 billion to public schools in the state.
The Expected Return for California Lottery Games
One of the details you’ll find on this site about the various lottery games available in each state is the theoretical expected return for each game. The expected return is the statistical percentage of each bet that’s returned to the player in the form of winnings.
This number is a percentage based on the odds of winning multiplied by the size of the prize. An expected return of 100% would mean that the game is a break-even proposition. It would be similar to betting on a coin toss and winning even money each time. Neither side has a mathematical advantage.
Lottery games, like casino games and slot machines, have an expected return of below 100%. The difference between the expected return and 100% is the “house edge.” The higher the house edge is, the lower the expected return is, and vice versa.
Here’s an example of what this means in practical terms:
You’re playing a lottery game with an expected return of 50%. Over time, you buy $10,000 worth of lottery tickets.
On average, you’ll win back $5000, but you’ll lose the other $5000.
But this a long-term, theoretical estimate. In the short run, you can easily be a winner. Or you might lose less than the predicted 50%.
The Law of Large Numbers suggests that the closer you get to an infinite number of trials, the likelier you are to see a return similar to the predicted return.
If the California Lottery weren’t profitable, it wouldn’t be able to fulfill its mission to fund education.
It’s your job, though, as an educated gambler, to make informed decisions about which games to play based on their expected returns.
And that’s why that information is included here:
To help you make better-informed playing decisions.
One interesting wrinkle presented by the expected return figures in the California lottery is that all the games, by state law, are pari-mutuel games. This means that the prize amounts are determined by the amount of revenue brought in by the sale of tickets – they’re not fixed numbers.
The payback percentage/expected return figures quoted on this page are based on the prize amounts for the most recent drawing at the time this page was written.
How to Play Lottery Games and Drawing Schedules in California
Here are the game-play details for each of the games available from the California State Lottery. The expected return for each game is listed where available, too.
Daily 3 is one of the more traditional draw games offered by the California State Lottery, and the game has 2 drawings every day – the first at 1pm and the 2nd at 6:30pm. To play, you simply pick 3 numbers between 0 and 9.
This means your total possible number of outcomes is 1000 – every 3-digit combination starting with 000, 001, 002, and so on, up to 999.
Daily 3 tickets cost a dollar to play.
You can choose from the following
The payback percentage for Cash 3 is around 50%. That’s standard for most of these “pick 3” draw games.
You have the following playing options:
Straight means you’re betting that you’ll match the winning numbers in order. For example, if you have the numbers 123, and the drawing comes up 321, you’ll lose because you didn’t match the numbers in order.
Box means you’re betting that you’ll match the winning numbers in any order. In the previous examples, you’d have the numbers 123, and you’d win if you had 123, 213, 312, or any other combination that includes all 3 numbers.
Straight/Box means you win half the straight prize and half the box prize if you get the numbers in exact order. If you get the numbers in any order, you only win half the box prize.
The odds in Daily 3 are easy to calculate for the straight bet. You have 1000 possible combinations, and you can only match one of them, so your odds of winning are 1 in 1000.
When you’re calculating the odds for box bets, the odds change based on whether you have 3 different numbers or 2 like numbers. With 2 like numbers, the odds of winning are 1 in 333, but if they’re 3 different numbers, the odds of winning are 1 in 167.
The odds of winning the straight/box bet are the same as winning the box bet. It’s the payout that changes.
The payouts for the California lottery are required by state law to be pari-mutuel. This means that, instead of a fixed amount, the prize amounts are based on how much money resulted from ticket sales for that game.
When researching this game, the prize for winning the straight bet was $494, while the prize for winning the box bet was $78. If you bet straight/box, you won $286 if you got the straight, but if you only got the box, you only won $39.
Those are common amounts; the fluctuations based on the pari-mutuel considerations aren’t that large.
The expected return for California’s Daily 3 is around 49.4%.
The Daily 4 is much like the Daily 3. The biggest difference is that you choose 4 numbers instead of just 3. But it still has drawings every day.
To play Daily 4, you choose 4 numbers between 0 and 9. A ticket costs $1. You also choose which playing option you prefer. You have the same playing options as you have with the Daily 3 – straight, box, and straight/box.
Instead of having 1000 possible outcomes, though, you now have 10,000 possible outcomes – from 0000 to 9999 and all the combinations in between.
The odds of winning a straight bet are 1 in 10,000, while the odds of winning a box bet are 1 in 417. Those are the odds if you choose 4 different numbers; when you start choosing “like numbers,” the odds change accordingly.
An example of a straight number might be 0216 – that only wins if the drawing results in 0216. 6210 has all the same digits, but it won’t win a straight bet because they’re in the wrong order.
An example of a box number might using those digits would 0126, and any combination including those 4 digits wins. 0126, 0216, 0612, and 6120 would all be winners – ANY combination of the 4 digits wins.
When you’re choosing “like” numbers, it means you’re choosing a combination like 0226. If you’re playing a straight bet, the odds are the same – 1 in 10,000.
But if you’re playing the box option, the odds of winning drop to 1 in 833. If you choose 2 sets of like numbers, like 2266, for example, you’re looking at 1 in 1667.
With 3 like numbers, you’re looking at a choice like 0666, and the odds of winning drop to 1 in 2500.
As of the most recent drawing, a straight bet paid off at $8448 to 1, and no one won. The box bet paid off at $338, and the straight/box paid off at $4418.
The expected return for an $8448 payout on a $1 ticket for a bet with a 1 in 10,000 probability of winning is 84.48%.
That’s excellent for a lottery game. Some slot machines don’t pay out that well.
The Daily Derby game has a horse racing theme, and the bets and winnings available reflect that paradigm. To play, you choose 3 horses and whether they’ll finish in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place. You also choose a race time.
A Daily Derby ticket costs $2 to play. The drawing is held every day, and the payouts are based on horse racing bet/results.
- The Grand Prize pays off if you get the trifecta and the race time correct. The odds of winning are 1 in 1,320,000.
- The Trifecta pays off if you get all 3 horses and their places correct. The odds of winning are 1 in 1321.
- The Exacta pays off if you get the 2 horses who place 1st and 2nd place correct. The odds of winning are 1 in 147.
- The Win pays off if you get the horse who wins 1st place correct. The odds of winning are 1 in 13.2.
- Race Time pays off if you get the race time correct. The odds of winning are 1 in 1001.
As with other California lottery games, the prizes are pari-mutuel, which means they’re determined by how many people play and how much money they contributed.
Here were the payouts when this page was written:
- The Grand Prize paid $162,695
- Exacta + Race Time paid $79
- Win + Race Time paid $61
- Race Time only paid $58
- The Trifecta paid $373
- The Exacta paid $21
- And a Win paid $3
The Fantasy 5 is a daily draw game where you choose 5 numbers between 1 and 39. It costs $1 to play. You win if you get any 2 numbers, and if you get all 5 numbers, you win the top prize.
The odds of winning are as follows:
- 5 numbers – 1 in 575,757
- 4 numbers – 1 in 3387
- 3 numbers – 1 in 103
- 2 numbers – 1 in 10
As with the other games in the California lottery, the prizes are pari-mutuel, which means they change from drawing to drawing. The most recent payouts looked like this:
- Top prize – $186.906
- 4 numbers — $511
- 3 numbers — $16
- 2 numbers – free play
Given those prize numbers, the payback percentage for Fantasy 5 was 73.08%, which is considerably better than you’ll see in most state lotteries’ draw games.
Hot Spot is basically a state-run keno game with a drawing every 4 minutes.
To play Hot Spot, you’re presented with a grid of numbers from 1 to 80. You can choose between 1 and 10 of those numbers.
The game also has a “Bulls-eye” option that’s activated when you place another bet equal to the size of your original bet. The minimum Bulls-eye bet is $2.
You can bet any of the following amounts when choosing your numbers:
The payouts range from $2 to $300,000 depending on how many numbers you choose and get right. To be eligible for the top prize of $300,000, you must bet on 10 numbers and the Bulls-eye and get all 10 numbers right.
As with most keno games, the payback percentage for Hot Spot is awful. You should play almost any other lottery game on this list to take advantage of the better odds.
MegaMillions and Powerball
California is one of the 45 states participating in Mega Millions and Powerball. These 2 games are the big jackpot games played across multiple states, and they’re the closest thing the United States has to a national lottery game.
Playing these games is $2 per ticket, and both games also offer an optional side bet for $1 that increases the size of your winnings when you get lucky.
Mega Millions drawings are always on Tuesdays and Fridays. Powerball drawings are always on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
As with any progressive jackpot, these games have a starting jackpot that increases in size until someone wins. The starting jackpot for Mega Millions is $40 million, while the starting jackpot for Powerball is $20 million.
The expected return for both games is below 20%. Mega Millions has an 18.94% expected return, and Powerball has a 19.48% expected return. As the jackpot grows, so does the expected return, although it would be unusual for the jackpot to ever get big enough for you to have an expected return of over 100%.
This means that the house edge for these games is over 80%.
You can get more details about either game at the following pages on this site:
Superlotto Plus is a standard draw game with drawings held twice a week. To play Superlotto Plus in California, you choose 5 numbers between 1 and 47. You also choose a “Mega” number between 1 and 27.
SuperLotto Plus is California’s largest drawing game held twice a week with jackpots that start at $7 million and grow from there. Given California’s large population, it should be no surprise that jackpots in this one grow quickly from drawing to drawing. The biggest jackpot ever awarded in this lottery topped out at $193 million in 2005.
Tickets to the SuperLotto Plus cost $1.00 in person with 95 cents out of every dollar spent by players going towards prizes and education efforts in California.
Superlotto Plus has 9 winning combinations, and the odds of winning each of them are as follows:
- 5 numbers plus the Mega – 1 in 41,416,353
- 5 numbers – 1 in 1,592.937
- 4 numbers plus the Mega – 1 in 197,221
- 4 numbers – 1 in 7585
- 3 numbers plus the Mega – 1 in 4810
- 3 numbers – 1 in 185
- 2 numbers plus the Mega – 1 in 361
- 1 number and Mega – 1 in 74
- Mega only – 1 in 49
The prize amounts for the last drawing were:
- 5 numbers plus the Mega – $14,000,000
- 5 numbers – $32,740
- 4 numbers plus the Mega – $2338
- 4 numbers – $98
- 3 numbers plus the Mega – $61
- 3 numbers – $10
- 2 numbers plus the Mega –$11
- 1 number and Mega – $2
- Mega only – $1
The payback percentage for the game with those prize amounts comes to 52.8%. This isn’t the worst lottery game you can play in California, but you have better options.
Of course, keep in mind that the prize amounts vary from drawing to drawing based on the number of tickets sold.
Scratchers in California work much the way they do everywhere else. You buy a ticket and scrape the scratch-off ink off the ticket to reveal whether you won a prize.
The California Lottery makes over 50 different games available per year in this category. The prices for these scratchers range from $1 to $20. The games usually have seasonal themes.
For example, in December 2020, California scratcher games included titles like Peppermint Payout and Holiday Cheer.
How to Buy Lottery Tickets and Claim Lottery Prizes in California
The goal of the California State Lottery Act in 1984 is to raise money for education without having to raise taxes. The law specifies how much of the revenue must go to various purposes, as follows:
- 34% goes to public education
- 50% goes to prizes
- Up to 16% goes to administration (although, based on the 95% figure quoted on the website, administration costs are minimal)
In 2010, those percentages were adjusted to require that 87% of the lottery’s revenues must go back to the public, cutting the allowable administration allocation to 13%.
The entire lottery program is managed by a 5-member commission appointed by the Governor.
The California Lottery has not been without controversy. Only 58% of the public supported the law establishing the Lottery, but in 1996, the Native American tribes in the state sued. At the time, the California Lottery was offering a keno game, which meant that the state was competing with the Native American casinos.
California joined Mega Millions and the Multi-State Lottery Association in 2005. The state joined Powerball in 2013.
California Lottery History
California passed Proposition 37 in 1984, which created the California Lottery. The state started selling lottery tickets almost a year later, in October, 1985.
As with most states, California’s goal in establishing the lottery was to provide more funds for education without raising taxes. State law specifies the percentages that must be returned to the public in the form of winnings and what percentage of proceeds can be allocated to administration of the games. It also stipulates how much money must be allocated toward education.
In 1996, California Indian tribes sued the state for its administration of keno games, which are distinguished from lottery games because they’re not pari-mutuel. Keno is traditionally a house-banked game. Daily 3 was also problematic.
As a response to these lawsuits, the California Lottery created the game Hot Spot, which is reviewed in detail above. The Lottery also modified the payout structure for Daily 3 to comply with the pari-mutuel requirements of the laws there.
In 2005, California joined Mega Millions. In 2013, California joined Powerball, too.
Because of state laws, California is the only state offering Mega Millions and Powerball with variable payouts.
How to Contact the California Lottery
The easiest way to contact the California Lottery is via the toll-free number at 1-800-LOTTERY, or 1-800-568-8379. That number is answered between 8am and 5pm Monday through Friday.
You can claim prizes of less than $600 at any California lottery retailer, but for prizes of $600 or more, you’ll want to claim your prize via mail. Claims used to be processed in person at the lottery offices, but during the pandemic, those in-person offices are closed.
Like most states offering lottery games, California earmarks most of the funds from their lottery for educational purposes. Since 95 cents of every dollar the state earns from the lottery goes toward that purpose, it’s safe to say that California is doing as well at funding education as any other state.
The games available from the California State Lottery can change. They add new games and retire old games periodically. You can get the latest information about the games available from the California State Lottery at the official site, https://www.calottery.com/.