An instant lottery is a lottery in which the prize, if any, is instantly determinable, being noted directly on the lottery ticket, rather than being determined by a secondary event like a random number drawing. In this way the influence of chance comes in to play at the point of purchase (as players are prevented from knowing the payoff of any individual ticket before buying it), rather than at some point afterwards, as with most other forms of lottery. While instant lotteries are often used as part of fundraising efforts for nonprofit groups or as promotions run by retailers or other commercial entities, they are probably best known in America where produced by state-run lotteries and sold by individual outlets like convenience stores and gas stations, where their instant nature and low cost make them good impulse buys.

The most commonly known form of instant lottery, and that commonly employed by state lottery systems, is the “scratch-off” or “scratch-and-win” ticket, named because the payoff (and other markings and code to prevent counterfeiting) is printed on the ticket and then covered by a thin layer of latex which must be scratched off, usually by a coin. Payoffs for these types of games are typically lower than number-drawing lotteries, usually ranging in the low one and two figures, and can usually be redeemed at their point of purchase (with the outlets reimbursed in whole or part by the lottery system). Payoffs of up to four figures or more are rare but not unknown, and these must usually be returned by mail or otherwise to the central lottery authority to be redeemed. In some cases these instant prizes are augmented by a secondary drawing which usually draws little attention or involvement, as entry often requires returning a non-paying ticket, which most players instead discard.

So as to increase interest and distract the player from the fact that he is engaging in a raw game of chance with a predetermined outcome, the results and payoff of a ticket are frequently encoded in the form of a game. Each state may have several types of instant lottery ticket, each with its own game, in circulation, but the games tend to have little actual variation in structure. Common types of these games include those which pay off if three symbols or values out of a field of nine match, and those which pay off if one of a number of figures or values matches a “winning” figure printed elsewhere on the ticket. This latter form, and some others, are often printed in the form of three or more “games” on each ticket, with each offering its own payout. One of the less obvious advantages of this format is that it becomes possible for the body printing the tickets to manipulate the tickets so as to frequently create the appearance of a “near miss”, frequently in conjunction with a high payoff value, which may be more likely to cause players to purchase another ticket and try again. Players should keep in mind that these games are not the product of random chance, but are structured so as to have a predetermined distribution of payoffs. In addition, those games featuring high payoffs will tend to have very few tickets yielding that amount, often remaining in circulation even after all these prizes have been claimed. Lottery operators are generally required to disclose specific odds and payoff distributions for any given game, usually in the form of pamphlets no one ever reads.

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