By Randy Ray
Launched in 1985, the Iowa Lottery was part of the second big wave of US lottery program expansion in the mid-1980s. Iowa’s been a member of the MUSL since the program’s inception.
The Iowa Lottery is a model of financial excellence, with administration costs at just $0.07 per dollar of revenue, which is among the lowest in the country. Though Iowa is a relatively small and rural state, it’s been operating a healthy lottery program for more than 35 years.
Iowa is the 33rd largest US state in terms of population, with about half the population of Missouri and about double the population of West Virginia. Annual lottery ticket sales in Iowa average about $370 million – only about 20% of Missouri’s sales, and only about 1/3 of lottery ticket sales in West Virginia. In fact, several state lottery programs with smaller player pools report much higher sales figures than the Iowa Lottery.
Solid per capita lottery spending is what keeps the lottery afloat (and affordable) – Iowans spend an average of $145.83 on lottery games each year against average winnings of $89.27. With few other gambling options in-state, lottery play is the easiest way most Iowans can access games of chance.
Here’s the complete list of games currently available from the Iowa Lottery:
- Pick 3
- Pick 4
- Mega Millions
- Lucky for Life
- Lotto America
- Scratch Games
- Pull-Tab Games
The only obvious reason for the limited lottery sales in Iowa is the state’s relatively small library of games. Iowa runs just two in-state draw games, and those have modest top prizes. Iowa’s legislature hasn’t allowed the Lottery to add any of the new styles of lottery games, like video lottery, keno, or bingo. There’s also the fact that Iowa’s lottery sales are limited to customers aged 21 and up, rather than the standard 18 years.
But that’s not to say Iowa Lottery hasn’t been a success overall. Since sales began in the summer of 1985, more than $2 billion in revenue has made its way to four major state programs: the Veterans Trust Fund, funds for public safety officers and their families, the Vision Iowa tourism promotional program, and the state’s General Fund. That’s a huge figure for a relatively small state lottery. The fact that Iowa Lottery has handed out more than $4.5 billion in prizes along the way (more than double state revenue allotments) is an indication of a healthy lottery program.
This post covers the Iowa Lottery from every possible angle, including details on the state programs’ history, contact information, help cashing prizes, notes on game drawing schedules, plus details on how to buy and how to play Iowa Lottery games, and some thoughts on game odds and probability along the way.
Probability, Return to Player, and the Iowa Lottery
To really wrap your head around lottery play, you need to understand some basic aspects of probability math. Even a slightly deep dive into lottery strategy will force you to confront concepts like game odds and return to player.
Even in this post, game odds are a big part of the reporting. Most often, coverage focuses on overall odds of winning. Occasionally, discussions of lottery games involve something called RTP. This is a way to compare games to one another in a relative way, even if those games involve very different rules and play styles. RTP (return to player) is presented as a percentage. That percentage is the amount returned to you in winnings for every dollar of play.
Focusing on one specific Iowa Lottery game to discuss overall odds of winning and RTP may help people unfamiliar with these concepts. Iowa Lottery’s $100,00 Cash scratcher game has overall odds of winning of 1 in 2.85. It’s a $10 ticket, which helps explain why the overall odds are lower than average for scratcher games. Overall odds of 1 in 2.85 means an RTP of about 35%. That means, theoretically, you should win on about 1 in every 3 $100,000 Cash tickets you buy.
Remember that these figures are theoretical. Overall odds of 1 in 2.85 don’t mean you’re guaranteed to win on every 2.85 tickets you buy. That isn’t how probability math works. That figure is a mathematical representation of real-world outcomes. You’re most likely to see that 1 in 2.85 figure bear itself out the more tickets you buy. By the same token, the fewer tickets you buy, the less your real-world results will look like the math behind the game.
You could win the top prize on $100,000 Cash on your very first purchase. The odds are 1 in 118,413 against you, but it’s mathematically possible. You could also buy ten $100,000 Cash tickets and not win a dime. Again, that’s not a likely result, but it’s within the realm of possibility.
Understanding how variance affects lottery play is an important part of playing intelligently. You can’t expect to get the odds exactly as posted on a game’s ticket on just a few purchases. Since Iowa Lottery doesn’t adjust game odds as prizes are claimed, you have to take those posted odds with a grain of salt anyway.
How to Play the Iowa Lottery (Drawings Schedules & Buying Tickets)
Iowa Lottery runs two in-state draw games (Pick 3 and Pick 4) and takes part in four multi-state draw games. Beyond that, Iowa offers InstaPlay tickets, scratchers, and pull-tab games.
Below is a brief guide to each game:
Pick 3 is one of two in-state lottery drawings by the Iowa Lottery. Tickets cost between $0.50 and $5 each, depending on the player’s preference. Pick 3 is drawn twice a day every day of the week. The first drawing is at 12:20 PM; the second is at 10 PM. Cutoff times are noon for the midday drawing and 9:40 PM for the evening drawing.
To play Pick 3, bettors choose a set of three numbers between 0 and 9. Bettors can also let the computer generate their numbers randomly.
Next, bettors pick a play type. Below is a breakdown of each Pick 3 play type:
- straight – match all numbers in exact order
- box – match numbers in any order
- straight/box – match either exact or in any order
- front pair – match the first two numbers in exact order
- back pair – match the last two numbers in exact order
All Pick 3 prizes must be claimed within 90 days.
For a guide to the (somewhat complicated) paytable, check out Iowa Lottery’s Pick 3 page.
Pick 4 is almost identical to Pick 3, except it involves an additional drawn number and larger prizes.
Lick Pick 3, Pick 4 is drawn twice a day, at 12:20 and 10 PM. Cutoff times are noon for the day drawing and 9:40 PM for the evening drawing. Tickets cost between $0.50 and $5 depending on the player’s preference.
The betting types and paytable for Pick 4 are like Pick 3. For a detailed guide to betting on this game, check out Iowa Lottery’s Pick 4 page.
Powerball & Mega Millions
The Iowa Lottery has been a part of the MUSL since the program’s launch, offering both Powerball and Mega Millions as part of that system.
These two games are the biggest names in American lottery, pumping out record-setting jackpots and drawing in hundreds of millions in ticket sales annually. Among US states that offer lottery games, very few don’t participate in these two lottery behemoths. In fact, the two games are similar enough that it’s fair to cover both Powerball and Mega Millions under a single category. Most of the time, the games are so similar that your overall odds of winning are practically identical.
That’s not the only thing identical between them. Both games cost $2. They both offer a $1 multiplier option. Both games use a pool of six drawn numbers to determine winners.
So, how are they different? Mega Millions bettors pick between the numbers 1 and 70. Powerball players pick from the numbers 1 to 69. Yes, Powerball uses one fewer potential winning number – but this is a tiny difference statistically, and some adjustments to the Powerball paytable mean the games are still practically the same odds-wise.
Here’s the paytable for Mega Millions:
Mega Millions Paytable
- Match all six balls to win the jackpot (min. $20 million) – odds of 1 in 302.5 million
- Match all five balls to win $1 million – odds of 1 in 12.6 million
- Match four balls and the Mega Ball to win $10,000 – odds of 1 in 931,000
- Match four balls to win $500 – odds of 1 in 38,792
- Match three balls and the Mega Ball to win $200 – odds of 1 in 14,547
- Match three balls to win $10 – odds of 1 in 606
- Match two balls and the Mega Ball to win $10 – odds of 1 in 693
- Match one ball and the Mega Ball to win $4 – odds of 1 in 89
- Match the Mega Ball to win $2 – odds of 1 in 24
The overall odds of winning any prize on a Mega Millions ticket: 1 in 24. That translates to a win on 4% of all Mega Millions tickets you buy. Remember, that number is theoretical, and your actual results are likely to vary a little bit in either direction.
Here’s the paytable for Powerball:
- Match all six balls to win the jackpot (min. $20 million) – odds of 1 in 292.2 million
- Match five balls to win $1 million – odds of 1 in 11.68 million
- Match four balls and the Powerball to win $50,000 – odds of 1 in 913,000
- Match four balls to win $100 – odds of 1 in 36,525.17
- Match three balls and the Powerball to win $100 – odds of 1 in 14,494.11
- Match three balls to win $7 – odds of 1 in 579.76
- Match two balls and the Powerball to win $7 – odds of 1 in 701.33
- Match one ball and the Powerball to win $4 – odds of 1 in 91.98
- Match the Powerball to win $4 – odds of 1 in 38.32
The overall odds of winning any prize on a Powerball ticket: 1 in 24.87. Theoretically, that means you should see a win on just about 4% of all the Powerball tickets you buy.
Notice how similar the overall odds on each game are? That can change a little depending on the sizes of the top prizes. The paytables above are for baseline jackpots, but most of the time there’s a discrepancy between the game’s two jackpot amounts. That means sometimes Powerball is a slightly better buy than Mega Millions, or the other way around.
But for most casual lottery players, a difference in odds of just 0.1 or 0.2% isn’t enough to make an impact on your play, and you should just play whichever game you prefer.
Lucky For Life
Iowa Lottery participates in Lucky for Life. Lucky for Life is a multi-state draw lottery game famous for its fixed annuitized top prize that’s worth $1,000 a day “for life.” Lucky for Life also has traditional fixed lottery jackpots.
Lucky for Life tickets cost $2. There’s no multiplier or other option that increases the ticket cost. The goal is to match your 5 numbers to the 5 numbers drawn. Four of the numbers are between 1 and 48, and the fifth number is the Lucky Ball, between 1 and 18.
Lucky for Life drawings are held at 9:38 PM Central time on Mondays and Thursdays. The cutoff time for each drawing is 8:30 PM Central time on the night of the drawing. Tickets purchased after that time will be considered as part of the following drawing.
Lucky for Life payouts are determined by the number of matches. Here’s the paytable:
- Match all six balls to win $1,000 a day for life – odds of 1 in 30.8 million
- Match 5 balls to win $25,000 a year for life – odds of 1 in 1.8 million
- Match 4 balls with the Lucky Ball to win $5,000 – odds of 1 in 143,355
- Match 4 balls to win $200 – odds of 1 in 8,432
- Match 3 balls with the Lucky Ball to win $150 – odds of 1 in 3,413
- Match 3 balls to win $20 – odds of 1 in 200
- Match 2 balls with the Lucky Ball to win $25 – odds of 1 in 249
- Match 2 balls to win $3 – odds of 1 in 14
- Match 1 ball with the Lucky Ball to win $6 – odds of 1 in 49
- Match only the Lucky Ball to win $4 – odds of 1 in 32
Your overall odds of winning any prize on a Lucky for Life ticket: 1 in 8. Theoretically, that means you should win on 12.5% of all the tickets you buy.
Lotto America is like a Powerball for smaller state lotteries. At the time of this post, 13 state lottery programs, mostly mid-level, participate in the game. This is a multi-state draw game much like Mega Millions or Powerball, but at a smaller scale. Lotto America top prize resets to $1 million, which seems small compared to the $20 million reset value of most of the big multi-state draw games.
A Lotto America ticket costs just $1, and as with other multi-state draw games, you can add another $1 to activate a win multiplier option.
Lotto America is drawn on Wednesdays and Sundays at 10 PM Central time. The cutoff time for ticket purchases is 8:59 PM on the night of each drawing day.
Here’s the current paytable and odds information for Lotto America:
- Match all six balls to win the jackpot – odds of 1 in 25.9 million
- Match five balls to win $20,000 – odds of 1 in 2.8 million
- Match four balls and the Star Ball to win $1,000 – odds of 1 in 110,000
- Match four balls to win $100 – odds of 1 in 12,288
- Match three balls and the Star Ball to win $20 – odds of 1 in 2,404
- Match three balls to win $5 – odds of 1 in 267
- Match two balls and the Star Ball to win $5 – odds of 1 in 160
- Match one ball and the Star Ball to win $2 – odds of 1 in 29
- Match just the Star Ball to win $1 – odds of 1 in 16.9
Your overall odds of winning any prize on a Lotto America ticket: 1 in 9.63. That means in theory you should win on just about 10% of all the tickets you buy.
InstaPlay is the newest addition to Iowa Lottery’s game library. Right now, it’s a list of ten games that print out from a special lottery terminal at certain Iowa Lottery retailers – anywhere you can buy Powerball tickets, you’ll find InstaPlay. These are like instant scratch tickets that don’t require scratching, a slightly grown up version of the classic bar pull-tab game.
Denominations for InstaPlay are $1, $2, $5, $10, and $20.
At the time of this post, there are 66 scratch games available through the Iowa Lottery. They’re broken up into seven different denominations. Here’s a breakdown of all the games currently available by denomination and average odds of winning:
- 12 $1 tickets – odds of 1 in 4.3
- 14 $2 tickets – odds of 1 in 3.89
- 9 $3 tickets – odds of 1 in 3.6
- 12 $5 tickets – odds of 1 in 3.43
- 13 $10 tickets – odds of 1 in 3.05
- 4 $20 tickets – odds of 1 in 2.71
- 2 $30 tickets – odds of 1 in 2.35
Scratch games make up about 2/3 of the Iowa Lottery’s revenue stream, which means they’re by far the best-supported product in Iowa. While the Iowa Lottery’s website leaves something to be desired in terms of design and ease-of-use, the section dedicated to scratch cards is impressive. Odds are clear and consistent, with links to game rules for every ticket, the end date for each ticket is clearly posted in several places, and the images of the games are clear.
To get a better sense of the scratch game market in The Hawkeye State, check out some further details for one of the state’s most popular scratch games – $500 Fast Cash. This is a $10 ticket with a top prize of $500 and a gimmick. Check out the paytable and odds and see if you can spot the gimmick:
- $500 – odds of 1 in 200.05
- $250 – odds of 1 in 1,606.53
- $200 – odds of 1 in 800.2
- $100 – odds of 1 in 239.89
- $50 – odds of 1 in 40.01
- $20 – odds of 1 in 15
- $10 – odds of 1 in 7.5
Notice how the top prize has relatively low odds? $500 Fast Cash has an overloaded jackpot. That means there are way more $500 prizes than second-, third-, or even fourth-tier prizes. It’s an unusual setup for a scratch card, but the gimmick paid off. $500 Fast Cash is Iowa Lottery’s fastest-selling scratch game of all time.
Overall odds on this game are 1 in 4.24. That means, theoretically, you should win on 23.58% of all $500 Fast Cash scratch cards you buy.
Pull-tab games are sold as part of the Iowa Lottery Authority, even though these games were made legal and sold in restaurants in bars well before Iowa added other lottery games.
At the time of this post, there are 39 different pull-tab games available in Iowa. They cost $0.25, $0.50, $1, $2, or $5 each, and are sold vending machine-style. All prizes must be claimed from the establishment that sold you the ticket. If your prize is worth $600 or more, you’ll have to cash it in at an Iowa lottery office.
These tickets tend to offer worse odds than equivalently-prized scratch games. Pull-tab games are a convenience product, easier to play than even a traditional scratch card since results are printed automatically.
Where to Buy Iowa Lottery Tickets
Iowa Lottery boasts “more than 2,400” retailers selling their games. These are all the typical places you find lottery games in America – small retail shops, gas stations, restaurants, and bars.
Use the Iowa Lottery’s Find a Retailer tool to find a business near you selling Iowa Lottery products.
How to Claim Iowa Lottery Prizes
Iowa Lottery offers three standard ways of claiming lottery prizes depending on the size of your ticket and a few other factors. You can claim prizes at lottery retailers, in person at a lottery office, or through the mail.
Prizes worth $600 or less can be claimed at lottery retailers, though these businesses have the right to refuse if they don’t have sufficient funds available to pay you.
Iowa Lottery operates four offices around the state. You can schedule prize-claim appointments by calling one of those offices during normal business hours. If your prize is worth more than $250,000, you’ll need to schedule an appointment at the Iowa Lottery’s headquarters in Clive.
If your prize is worth between $601 and $250,000, you can collect your prize through the mail. The lottery website says you need to fill out the back of your ticket and sign at the signature line. If the prize you’re claiming is worth $100 or more, you’ll need to fill out a Winner Claim Form (along with federal tax Form W-9), both of which are available through the lottery’s website.
If your prize is worth $600 or more, you’ll also need to include a valid copy of a government-issued ID card.
All of this needs to be mailed to Iowa Lottery headquarters:
13001 University Ave.
Clive, IA 50325-8225
Contact the Iowa Lottery
If you’re just looking for winning Iowa Lottery numbers, call 515-323-4633. As far as I can tell, it broadcasts winners 24 hours a day using a prerecorded message.
Iowa Lottery uses a contact form as its frontline means of communicating with customers. Questions sent in on the contact form are answered between 8 AM and 4 PM Monday through Friday.
Here are the phone numbers for each of the four Iowa Lottery offices:
Iowa Lottery HQ – 515-725-7900
Cedar Rapids Regional Office – 319-395-9313
Mason City Regional Office – 641-424-6011
Storm Lake Regional Office – 712-732-6662
Office hours at all four locations are from 8 AM to 4 PM Monday through Friday.
The Iowa Lottery may not be the most lucrative in the country, but sales are healthy, and the outlook for the program is good, based on the state’s annual reports from the past few years.
Legal sports betting in Iowa is not connected to the Iowa Lottery Authority. That was seen as a potential problem by the state’s lottery administrators. Since sports betting launched in Iowa in the summer of 2019 (and ballooned to some $10 million a day in bets), there’s been no reduction in lottery ticket sales. That’s an indication that lottery play is now a part of the state’s culture – and a good sign that opening sports betting options in other states with healthy lottery programs is probably not an issue.
Iowans enjoy playing lottery games, and though the state’s draw game offerings are more anemic than you expect from a Heartland lottery program, the state’s healthy scratcher ticket and instant game sales keep costs low and interest high.