The history of the scratch-off ticket

Instant-win tickets from concept to design.

The history of the scratch-off ticket
1970s Magazine stand selling New York Lottery tickets. By Jim Pickerell, 1936-, Photographer (NARA record: 4588217) - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain.

Over recent decades, instant-win lottery tickets, also known as scratch-offs or scratchers, have become increasingly popular.

A scratch-off ticket has numbers hidden by a protective coating. The coating must be removed to play the game. Though you may not realize it, instant-win games have been around for more than 40 years. Let's take a closer look at their history.

The birth of the scratch-off lottery game

The scratch cards we are familiar with today have a history that goes back to the 1970s. The concept was developed by American computer scientists John Koza and Daniel Bower in 1974. During the early 70s, Koza had worked for a company that printed bingo cards for U.S. grocery stores. His job was to design computer algorithms that made the bingo cards fair for participants.

After he was fired in 1972, Koza realized the concept he'd been using could be applied to the lottery, and he set out to create a new type of lottery game. To help him with the marketing aspects of his entrepreneurial plan, Koza teamed up with a former colleague, Daniel Bower. In 1973, the pair founded the Scientific Games Corporation (SGC). Soon, they began to pitch their scratch-off game idea to state lottery associations. In 1974, Massachusetts became the first state lottery to implement the games. This launched the instant-win game revolution.

Overcoming the hurdles

Koza and Bower had to surmount two large obstacles before they could expand. The first was to work with lawmakers to combat state and federal regulations to ensure that lottery players would get a fair chance of winning prizes from the scratch-offs. The second obstacle was the issue of counterfeit tickets. Lottery companies and lawmakers alike wanted assurance that unscrupulous people would not be able to take advantage of the new lottery system once it was in place. To combat this issue, Koza enlisted some other creative minds to develop a secret coating that would make the tickets extremely difficult to forge.

Instant demand for scratch-off tickets

As soon as the instant games reached the stores, lottery players were clamoring to get their hands on them. Scratch cards were a big hit, and in the beginning, they brought in up to three times more revenue than traditional draw tickets. In an interview with the New York Times in July 2013, Koza said:

Stores were demanding extra tickets. The paperwork was overwhelming. We had to print more tickets, and then, of course, all the other states took notice because the sales were just spectacular.

One of the attractions of the early New York Lottery instant-win tickets was their design. They featured major tourist locations like Whiteface Mountain and Letchworth. This, as well as the chance to win cash prizes, seemed to appeal to lottery players. So much so that within two years, the company was worth $15 million. That's the equivalent of about $92 million today.

With its increasing success, SGC became attractive to many investors and business owners. In 1981, Koza sold it to Bally Manufacturing, a company that made pinball machines and arcade games. Four years later, instant-win games rose to a new level when the California Lottery ordered 700 million tickets. Around the same time, the Take-a-Ticket display format was introduced. This enabled customers to easily see which tickets were available up close, making them more likely to purchase one. From there, scratch-off tickets never looked back.

Bigger prizes, better scratch-offs

During the late 80s and early 90s, the demand for instant-win ignited further with the introduction of computer-generated scratch-off cards. This encourages many more jurisdictions throughout the U.S. to add instant-win games to their lottery inventory.

In 1987, Missouri advanced scratchers further by launching the first $2 instant-win game. The higher price meant bigger prizes than the original $0.25 and $0.50 tickets. They were an instant hit, and this was just the beginning of the expansion of a wider price range.

By 2000, over 30 billion instant-win tickets were sold worldwide, generating more than $50 in revenue annually. In many American jurisdictions, scratch-off tickets accounted for more than half of all lottery sales.

Today, instant-win games are even more popular, and more types of scratch-off tickets are available than ever before. In 2022, people all over the world spent an amazing $348.3 billion on lottery tickets, and almost half of that amount was on instant-win tickets.

Why are scratch-off games so popular?

There's no denying the popularity of instant-win games, but what is it about them that makes them so appealing? Here are a few ideas:

  • Easy to find: You don't have to look hard to find scratch cards these days. Many retail outlets sell them, including gas stations, pharmacies, convenience stores, grocery stores, bars, liquor stores, and casinos.
  • Instant gratification: One of the great things about scratch cards is that there's no need to wait for a drawing, and you can know immediately if you are a winner.
  • Wide price range: You can wager anywhere between $1 and $50 in many states, so you can purchase a ticket that suits your pocket.
  • Convenience: You can play scratch-off cards anywhere. In the store where you bought them, in your car, or at home. You can even play many online at your state lottery website or on your mobile app.
  • Varied prize range: The more you wager, the more you can win. You don't have to settle for a few hundred dollars; you can try for a jackpot of millions.
  • Extra features: Along with the main prizes, many instant-win games also have bonus prizes and multipliers. Many state lotteries also offer second chances to win by entering non-winning tickets into monthly drawings.

Myths about scratch-off games

It's not unusual for myths and rumors to arise surrounding lottery games. Here are some of the myths related to instant-win games:

  • Random chance or set odds?: Although many players believe that the chances of winning a scratch-off game are purely random, that is not the case. All instant-win tickets have fixed odds and payout rates that are set by the manufacturer. This is to ensure that every player has the same chance of winning. All scratch-offs are mass-produced, which means that in each branded game, a new ticket will have the same odds as older cards from the same batch. You can, however, go to your state lottery's website and look up each scratch card to find out how many and which prizes are remaining.
  • Scratch harder to win more: Amusingly, in the early days of instant-win games, a myth circulated that how hard or gently you scratched your card would affect the odds of you winning. Of course, back then, as it is now, this is completely impossible.
  • A higher wager means better odds: Some players are still under the misapprehension that if you pay more for an instant-win ticket, your odds of winning are higher. This is not the case. According to the manufacturers, the odds of winning on a scratch-off card are similar across the lower and higher-priced games. Also, buying more tickets does not increase your odds.

Big instant winners

You may not have a chance to win billions of dollars on an instant win game, but numerous games offer the opportunity to play for several hundred thousand dollars, some even several million. Here are some of the biggest instant winners ever:

  • $25 million: In 2023, Desiree Fortini-Craft of Hyde Park won the biggest instant-win jackpot ever from the Massachusetts Lottery's $50 Billion Dollar Extravaganza instant game.
  • $6 million: In 2022, a Michigan Lottery player won a $6 million jackpot from a $50 $300,000,000 Diamond Riches ticket.
  • $5 million: In 2023, a California Lottery player won a $5 million prize by playing a 100x Scratchers ticket.

Instant-win tickets with big jackpots

If you're on the lookout for scratch-off tickets with huge top prizes, here are some of the largest available:

  • $25 million: The Florida Lottery's 500X The Cash instant-win game has two top prizes of $25 million. To date, two top prizes remain.
  • $20 million: The Texas Lottery's $20 Million Supreme instant-win game has four top prizes of $20 million. To date, one remains.
  • $10 million: The New York Lottery's 200X instant-win has five top prizes of $10 million. To date, one remains.
  • $10 million: The California Lottery's $10,000,000 Super Bonus instant-win game has seven top prizes of $10 million. To date, four jackpots remain.
  • $10 million: The North Carolina Lottery's $10 Million Spectacular instant-win game has five top prizes of $10 million. To date, three jackpots remain.
  • $6 million: The Michigan Lottery's 500X Money Maker instant-win has three top prizes of $6 million. To date, two remain.

Wherever you play your instant-win games, have fun, and please remember to play responsibly.


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