By Randy Ray
Like so many state lottery programs in America, the Montana Lottery was voted into existence after a little bit of legislative magic. Becoming just the 9th US state to legalize a modern version of the statewide lottery, Montana has long been an innovator in the industry, a role that seems out of step with its “frontier, simple life” identity.
Montana launched its lottery program with just one scratch-off instant-win game, a $1 ticket called Pot of Gold. As is typical in US states who launched their programs in the 1980s, the first ticket sales were to Governor Ted Schwinden. Montana’s first year of sales amounted to $21.8 million – in 2020, that number hovers closer to $60 million a year.
Here’s the list of games that are now part of the Montana Lottery library:
- Montana Cash
- Big Sky Bonus
- Lotto America
- Lucky for Life
- Mega Millions
- Montana Millionaire
- Montana Sports Action (sports betting)
- Treasure Play
There’s no getting around it – Montana’s lottery program is small. The Montana Lottery contributes about $10 million a year in revenue to the state’s General Fund. When you consider that Florida earns about $1.2 billion a year in revenue from their lottery, Montana Lottery seems almost like an afterthought.
The average Montana citizen spends just $45 a year on lottery games. That’s the second-smallest number in the country, with only the citizens of North Dakota spending less per person per year. Compared to New York and Connecticut, where people spend more than $300 a year on lotto games, Montana’s lottery spending looks down right Puritanical.
You can’t blame the smaller stature of the Montana Lottery on the state’s sparse population – Montana’s population dwarfs South Dakota, but South Dakotans support one of the more robust small-state lottery systems.
It isn’t for lack of trying on the part of the Montana government – the state joined a wave of states offering lottery games in the 80s, eventually joining multi-state games and releasing dozens of instant win scratch games. Montana Lottery went even further to entice increased play in 2008 by legalizing sports betting. Montanans have plenty of options when it comes to lottery play, but they’re generally not all that interested.
Here’s another interesting note – Montana is the only state to take lottery revenue away from its educational system. Between 1986 and 1995, a specific percentage of lottery revenue went directly to the Superintendent of Public Instruction, for distribution throughout the state’s education system. In 1995, the Montana Legislature voted to simplify revenue allocations statewide, including in the lottery system. Funds that had been flowing into education were re-routed into the state’s General Fund.
There are bright sides to consider. Montana Lottery operates two in-state draw games – the daily draw Big Sky Bonus and the twice-a-week Montana Cash. Other small lottery programs maintain just a single in-state game (see South Dakota’s Dakota Cash). Montana Lottery is also worth applauding for their embrace of sports betting.
Montana Lottery pays out a little more than $55,000 a day in winnings, the vast majority of which goes to Montana citizens. Since 1987, the state claims to have paid out some $700 million in prizes. For every $1 bet into the system, $0.70 is returned in the form of prizes, with another twenty cents or so paid out to retailers and state government agencies for revenue allocations.
This page acts as an all-in-one guide to playing Montana Lottery games. Coverage includes details on where to buy tickets, where to cash in winnings, odds and payouts for draw and instant-win games, and thoughts on return to player percentages for the state’s various games.
Probability, Return to Player, and the Montana Lottery
Playing Montana Lottery games is a form of gambling.
People who play the lottery don’t like to think of it as such – and in Montana, where the population is sparse, casinos and people are known for keeping to themselves, gambling doesn’t have a positive connotation. Sure, the state has some casino gambling, but it’s small-scale, and it’s seen as a tourist thing, not really for the locals.
But call it what it is – Montana Lottery play is gambling.
In this post, and in much of the content on this site, you’ll see terms drawn from the science of probability. That’s a field of mathematics that studies things like statistics, likelihood, and (as a nice bonus for gamblers) games of chance and skill.
A term you’ll see used frequently on this page and on other pages on this site is “return to player.” This is a number, presented as a percentage, that smart people have worked out. It’s an estimate of a player’s return on every dollar bet into a slot machine or a game of blackjack.
There’s some jargon shift among people who write about gambling. The phrase “payback percentage” is basically the same as return to player. That means if a casino advertises a game or a bet as having a 99% payback percentage, it also has a 99% return to player.
It’s easy to work out return to player figures on your own. If you know the probability of each outcome for a given game, you can multiply that probability by the prize amount to get a sense of its expected return. Once you’ve worked out the expected return for each prize in a game, you can add them all together to get that game’s total return to player figure.
Consider the Montana Lottery Big Sky Bonus game. The overall odds of winning are 1 in 7.79, meaning players should expect to win on about 12.8% of tickets purchases. Does that mean that players always win 12.8% of the time? Of course not.
A person’s real-world results will probably be different from that figure. A player may win after purchasing just one ticket, or it may take a dozen tickets before a prize hit. The figures released by the state are theoretical numbers.
A word of warning about payback percentages and return to player (sometimes stylized RTP): these are theoretical numbers, not literal predictions of player performance. RTP is based on an infinite number of plays. Lottery games, like all games of chance, are random. You shouldn’t expect to get back 99% of every $1 you bet into a game that’s listed as having a 99% RTP. Instead, you should take that 99% figure as an implication that that game is less volatile than one listed at, say, 89%.
When return to player or payback percentage number are used on this page, it’s with the understanding that these figures are mathematical estimates of possibilities, not estimations of winnings or losses written in stone.
How to Play the Montana Lottery (Drawing Schedules and Buying Tickets)
Montana runs two draw games within state lines. The rest of their game collection is made up of multi-state games, a raffle, a state-sponsored sportsbook, instant-win scratch tickets, and a library of digital video lottery games called Treasure Play.
Here’s a guide to each category of lottery game offered by Montana Lottery.
Montana Cash is the flagship game of the Montana Lottery. Each ticket costs $1.
Players pick five numbers between 1 and 39. There’s no bonus ball or other consideration. Quick Pick is available. Players can bet on up to 24 consecutive drawings on each ticket.
The top prize on Montana Cash is an ever-increasing jackpot that resets to $40,000 and increases until someone claims it. Montana Cash also includes a Max Cash progressive secondary jackpot which requires an additional $1 wager to qualify. There’s no benefit to activating the Max Cash bonus besides the additional jackpot, which is always smaller than the game’s top prize.
Here’s an example of the two jackpots – at the time of this post, the main jackpot is worth $80,000, and the Max Cash progressive jackpot is worth $67,811, for a total of $147,811.
The game is drawn on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 8 PM Mountain time. All ticket sales are cut off at 7:45 PM Mountain time on the day of the drawing. Any tickets purchased after that time will be for the next drawing date.
Here’s the pay table and odds for each of Montana Cash’s prizes:
- Match 5 balls with Max Cash activated and win both jackpots– odds of 1 in 610,880
- Match 5 balls without Max Cash and win the jackpot – odds of 1 in 610,880
- Match 4 balls and win $200 – odds of 1 in 3,054
- Match 3 balls and win $5 – odds of 1 in 78
- Match 2 balls and win $1 – odds of 1 in 6
The overall odds of winning any prize in Montana Cash are 1 in 5.7, meaning players should win on about 17.5% of tickets they purchase.
Big Sky Bonus
Big Sky Bonus is Montana’s daily draw game. Each ticket costs $2.
Players pick four numbers between 1 and 31 as well as a Bonus Number between 1 and 16. The Big Sky Bonus Number is separate from the four standard numbers and exists as its own separate game. There’s no extra wager needed to play the Big Sky Bonus – each $2 ticket comes with a Big Sky Bonus play.
You can use Quick Pick or select your own numbers. You can also play up to seven consecutive draws on each ticket.
The Big Sky Bonus number pays out $10 if you match it. The odds of matching it are 1 in 16, meaning players should expect to win that $10 payout about 6% of the time.
Here’s the pay table and odds for the base game:
- Match 4 balls to win the jackpot (minimum $1,000) – odds of 1 in 31,465
- Match 3 balls to win $20 – odds of 1 in 291.34
- Match 2 balls to win $2 – odds of 1 in 14.94
- Match the Bonus ball to win $10 – odds of 1 in 16
Overall odds of winning on this game are 1 in 7.79, meaning players should expect to win on about 12.8% of tickets purchased.
Like other small US state lotteries, Montana Lottery participates in Lotto America.
Lotto America a multi-state lottery draw game with 13 US state members. It’s a growing game with relatively low jackpots compared to the multi-state behemoths Mega Millions and Powerball. The top prize for Lotto America is a typical pari-mutuel progressive prize that offers $1 million at a minimum and grows until someone claims it.
Each Lotto America ticket costs $1. Players can bet an extra dollar to activate a multiplier that increases non-jackpot prizes by 2, 3, 4, or 5 times.
Here’s the pay table and odds information for Lotto America as played through Montana Lottery:
- Match five balls and the Star Ball, win the jackpot – odds of 1 in 25.9 million
- Match five balls, win $20,000 – odds of 1 in 2.8 million
- Match four balls and the Star Ball, win $1,000 – odds of 1 in 110,000
- Match four balls, win $100 – odds of 1 in 12,288
- Match three balls and the Star Ball, win $20 – odds of 1 in 2,404
- Match three balls, win $5 – odds of 1 in 267
- Match two balls and the Star Ball, win $5 – odds of 1 in 160
- Match one ball and the Star Ball, win $2 – odds of 1 in 29
- Match just the Star Ball, win $1 – odds of 1 in 16.9
The overall odds of winning on Lotto America are 1 in 9.63, meaning players should expect to win on about 10% of all the tickets they purchase.
Lucky for Life
Lucky for Life is a big multi-state draw game with a unique prize. Currently, Montana is one of 23 states that offer Lucky for Life as part of their state lottery game library.
The unique feature of Lucky for Life is their fixed annuitized lifetime top prizes.
A ticket for Lucky for Life cost $2. There’s no enhancement or multiplier bet to consider – a ticket is $2, all day and all night.
Lucky for Life’s top prize is “$1,000 a day for life,” and the second prize is “$25,000 a year for life.” The other prizes in the game are traditional fixed draw payouts.
To play Lucky for Life, players choose 5 numbers between 1 and 48, and an additional Lucky Ball number between 1 and 18.
Here’s the pay table and odds information for Lucky for Life:
- Match 5 balls and the Lucky Ball, win $1,000 a day for life – odds of 1 in 30.8 million
- Match 5 balls, win $25,000 a year for life – odds of 1 in 1.8 million
- Match 4 balls and the Lucky Ball, win $5,000 – odds of 1 in 143,355
- Match 4 balls, win $200 – odds of 1 in 8,432
- Match 3 balls and the Lucky Ball, win $150 – odds of 1 in 3,413
- Match 3 balls, win $20 – odds of 1 in 200
- Match 2 balls and the Lucky Ball, win $25 – odds of 1 in 249
- Match 2 balls, win $3 – odds of 1 in 14
- Match 1 ball plus the Lucky Ball, win $6 – odds of 1 in 49
- Match just the Lucky Ball, win $4 – odds of 1 in 32
The overall odds of winning any Lucky for Life prize are 1 in 7.8, which means players should expect to win on about 12.8% of tickets.
Powerball & Mega Millions
These two multi-state games are similar enough to deserve a combined section. Let’s look at the ways Mega Millions and Powerball, as offered through Montana Lottery, are alike and different.
Both games cost $2 to play. They also both offer a $1 multiplier option, so that both games have a total betting range of $2 to $3 per play.
In both Mega Millions and Powerball, players pick five numbers. There’s also an important difference between the two games to consider – Mega Millions has a pool of 70 numbers to pick from, but Powerball only has 69 numbers. This makes a small but important difference in the games’ odds.
For both Powerball and Mega Millions, a sixth number comes into play. Both games also have a special sixth number, numbered 1 to 26 for Powerball and 1 to 25 for Mega Millions. This called the Powerball, for the game of the same name, or the Mega Ball on Mega Millions.
About that multiplier – the Mega Millions multiplier can increase any non-jackpot winnings by 2, 3, 4, 5, or 10x, while the Powerball multiplier can only multiply non-jackpot prizes by 2, 3, 4, or 5 times.
Now we’ll compare the pay tables and odds for the two games.
Here’s Mega Millions:
- Match five balls and the Mega Ball, win the jackpot (min. $20 million) – odds of 1 in 302.5 million
- Match all five balls, win $1 million – odds of 1 in 12.6 million
- Match four balls and the Mega Ball, win $10,000 – odds of 1 in 931,000
- Match four balls, win $500 – odds of 1 in 38,792
- Match three balls and the Mega Ball, win $200 – odds of 1 in 14,547
- Match three balls, win $10 – odds of 1 in 606
- Match two balls and the Mega Ball, win $10 – odds of 1 in 693
- Match one ball and the Mega Ball, win $4 – odds of 1 in 89
- Match the Mega Ball, win $2 – odds of 1 in 24
According to this pay table, the odds of winning any prize on a Mega Millions ticket are 1 in 24, which means players should expect a win on about 4.2% of the tickets they buy.
Here’s a look at the same information for Powerball:
- Match five balls and the Powerball, win the jackpot (min. $20 million) – odds of 1 in 292.2 million
- Match five balls, win $1 million – odds of 1 in 11.68 million
- Match four balls and the Powerball, win $50,000 – odds of 1 in 913,000
- Match four balls, win $100 – odds of 1 in 36,525.17
- Match three balls and the Powerball, win $100 – odds of 1 in 14,494.11
- Match three balls, win $7 – odds of 1 in 579.76
- Match two balls and the Powerball, win $7 – odds of 1 in 701.33
- Match one ball and the Powerball, win $4 – odds of 1 in 91.98
- Match the Powerball, win $4 – odds of 1 in 38.32
Based on this pay table, the odds of winning any prize on a Powerball ticket are 1 in 24.87, meaning players can expect to win on about 4% of the tickets they buy.
The 0.2% difference between the odds of winning any Mega Millions prize and the odds of winning any Powerball prize aren’t significant for casual players. People who play on a more intense level may see more value in the Mega Millions game and avoid Powerball altogether.
These are the country’s two biggest draw lotto games and they’re major competitors of one another – picking one game over another just comes down to preference, and plenty of Montana Lottery players choose to play both games.
Montana Millionaire is a raffle run by the Montana Lottery. Tickets cost $20, and only 250,000 are printed. Winning numbers are drawn three times a year – two Early Bird drawings in November and December and the final drawing on Christmas Day.
Here’s the range of prizes and odds of winning according to the Montana Lottery:
- $1,000,000 – two prizes – odds of 1 in 125,000
- $25,000 – one prize – estimated odds of 1 in 180,000
- $15,000 – one prize, estimated odds of 1 in 160,000
- $500 – 1,500 prizes – odds of 1 in 166.67
- $100 – 1,000 prizes – odds of 1 in 250
Each ticket has about a 1% chance of winning.
The state has recently added two Early Bird drawings, one on Thanksgiving Day and another on December 17th. These drawings have just two winners – the $25,000 and the $15,000 prize mentioned above. The idea is to drive up interest in the raffle in the days leading up to the big drawing on Christmas Day.
Montana Sports Action
The name here can be a little confusing. Montana Sports Action is the name of the category of lottery play, but the sportsbook run by Montana Lottery is called Sports Bet Montana. Players don’t call it Montana Sports Action; they call it Sports Bet Montana.
A little history here – MSA, as Montana Lottery calls it, was born out of a desire to increase interest in horse racing in the state. A law, known as MCA 23-4, allowed for fantasy sports wagering and dictated that 26% of money bet on sports in Montana go directly to the Board of Horse Racing to support horse racing efforts in the state.
The markets available mirror other US-facing books. Montanans can bet on the big four sports – baseball, basketball, hockey, and football – as well as a small collection of niche markets, like cycling, darts, and bowling.
One thing that stands out about Sports Bet Montana is the high vigorish – the standard vig in the industry is -110, but you’ll often see -115 and -118 lines. This is the cost of doing business in Montana, where big demands on lottery revenue lead to big demands for sportsbook profits.
Since Montanans have access to sports bet in a way that most Americans don’t, you have to put this offering down as a win for the Montana Lottery. The user interface is fine, the range of markets is about average, but the odds aren’t all that great.
At the time of this post, Montana Lottery offers 68 Montana Scratch instant-win lottery games in six denominations.
Here’s a breakdown of each denomination by number of games and average odds.
- $1 games – 18, average odds of 1 in 4.65
- $2 games – 21, average odds of 1 in 4.34
- $3 games – 12, average odds of 1 in 4.11
- $5 games – 10, average odds of 1 in 3.67
- $10 games – 5, average odds of 1 in 3.68
- $20 games – 2, average odds of 1 in 3.37
Typically, your best odds come on the more expensive games, though this fluctuates a little as tickets enter and leave the market.
Let’s look deeper at the pay table and odds for one of Montana Lottery’s more popular scratch games, the $2 ticket called King Crossword.
Players scratch their 18 letters to reveal them. By scratching only those letters in the crossword puzzle that come up in their letter area, they reveal their prize. Prizes are paid for revealing as few as 3 complete words.
Here’s the pay table and odds for each win in Montana Lottery’s King Crossword:
- Reveal 3 words – win $2, odds of 1 in 8.51
- Reveal 4 words – win $4, odds of 1 in 8.89
- Reveal 5 words – win $10, odds of 1 in 57.14
- Reveal 6 words – win $20, odds of 1 in 200
- Reveal 7 words – win $50, odds of 1 in 1,000
- Reveal 8 words – win $100, odds of 1 in 1,428.57
- Reveal 9 words – win $1,000, odds of 1 in 120,000.
- Reveal 10 words – win $12,000, odds of 1 in 80,000
Overall odds of winning any prize are 1 in 3.93, meaning about 25.4% of tickets purchased will be winners.
The biggest prize currently available on a single Montana Lottery Scratch Game is $500,000, found on the $20 ticket called Money. Posted odds for that $500,000 prize are 1 in 180,000. Another $20 ticket, $500,000 Extreme Cash, had even better top prize odds of 1 in 80,000, but all 5 of those prizes have already been claimed as of this post.
Treasure Play games aren’t quite slots, they’re not quite lottery games, and they’re hard to categorize. The easiest way to talk about them and think about them is as instant-win lottery games, but without the scratching. The games use a video screen, and different rules and symbols and payouts, to determine outcomes.
Some of the games are more slot-oriented – UFO Tic Tac Toe for example requires lining up UFO symbols in certain combinations for payouts. Other games are not at all slot-like, such as Shake a Day. In Shake a Day, you spend $3 to shake a cup of dice, with payouts determined by the combos of spots in your result.
The emphasis here is instant-win. For players who aren’t thrilled by chasing a once-a-week or once-a-day lottery game, Treasure Play offers immediate gratification, in a wide range of bet sizes.
Here’s a look at the denominations available in Montana Lottery’s Treasure Play library:
- $1 games – 2, average odds of 1 in 8
- $2 games – 2, average odds of 1 in 3.75
- $3 games – 2, average odds of 1 in 2.9
- $5 games – 2, average odds of 1 in 2.98
- $10 games – 2, average odds of 1 in 3.5
- $20 games – 2, average odds of 1 in 5
These are simple games, easy to play, and they fit in well with the bar and restaurant scene where you’ll find them stationed.
Here’s the pay table for one of the more popular plays, a $10 game called $10 Loaded Progressive.
- Match 4 of 4 numbers – win the jackpot (minimum $1,000), odds of 1 in 15,000
- Match 3 of 4 numbers – win $30, odds of 1 in 7
At the minimum jackpot size, overall odds of winning are about 1 in 6.6.
Where to Buy Montana Lottery Tickets
Montana Lottery is unique in that they have two distinct types of lottery retailers.
The first is known as an MTL shop – this is the traditional Montana Lottery retail environment, usually a gas station, convenience store, or restaurant, where scratch tickets and lotto tickets are sold.
The other type of shop is called an MSA/TP shop – this is a different type of environment, usually a bar or casino, where you can place Montana Sports Action bets and play Treasure Play video style games.
You won’t ever find an MTL shop combined with an MSA/TP shop. In Montana, you can either buy scratch games and draw lotto tickets or you can place sports bets and play video lottery games, but the two environments don’t mix.
The easiest way to find a place to buy Montana Lottery tickets is to use the Lottery’s Find a Retailer tool.
How to Claim Montana Lottery Prizes
Montana Lottery offers three ways to claim prizes – from a retailer, through the mail, or in-person at the state’s headquarters in Helena.
Prizes under $600 can be claimed at any Montana Lottery retailer, though the state points out that retailers have the right to refuse payment if they don’t have enough cash on hand. Prizes of $600 and above cannot be claimed at a Montana Lottery retailer.
Claiming prizes through the mail requires signing the ticket and submitting it along with a claim form (found here) to the Montana Lottery headquarters. If the prize is $600 or more, the winner needs to submit a clear photocopy of a driver’s license or other state-issued form of ID along with the claim form. The state makes no claims about how long it may take to get your prize back in the mail.
Winners claiming a prize in person are urged to schedule an appointment. You can do so by calling their office (contact info listed near the bottom of this post) during normal working hours on Monday through Friday. They accept walk-in appointments between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., though people with appointments take priority, meaning all walk-in prize claims are first come, first served. The office is not open on weekends.
Take note that Montana taxes lottery winnings at both the state and federal level. The federal government will take 24% of any prize over $5,000, and Montana will tax you for another 6.9%. That’s a 30.9% hit on all big lottery prizes in Montana, which isn’t the worst in the country, but it’s far from the best.
Contact the Montana Lottery
Here’s the address of the state’s lottery headquarters in Helena:
2525 North Montana Avenue
Helena, MT 59601-0598
The state’s lottery website lists the following phone numbers for telephone contact:
The generic email contact posted on their website is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Montana Lottery is a small system with a few interesting features. Their relatively large lineup of draw games, in-state and multi-state, is worth noting. Not many states have legalized the kind of sports betting you get with Montana Sports Action. While the Montana Lottery’s revenue figures won’t win any awards for size, it’s among the most efficient state lottery programs in the country, spending less than 5% of revenue on operations.
Montana Lottery game odds are on par with the rest of the country, and the system has the full-throated support of the state legislature and most of its citizens. Though there’s no plans to expand the games on offer at this time, the appetite for lottery in the state is significant.