The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine winners. It differs from games that require skill, such as poker or blackjack, in that the former involves paying to enter and winning a prize for no real effort, while the latter requires the use of mental arithmetic to make strategic decisions during play. A lottery is also distinct from a game of chance, such as roulette, in which players bet against the house and win a payout regardless of their skill or luck. In the United States, state governments sponsor a variety of lotteries to raise money for public works projects, education, or other social services. Lottery advocates argue that state government should adopt these games because they are a cost-effective source of revenue and are unlikely to upset voters by raising taxes or cutting popular programs.

Despite their low odds of winning, some people become addicted to playing the lottery. According to research conducted by Les Bernal, an anti-lottery activist, state-sponsored lotteries rely on a small number of frequent players who account for 70 to 80 percent of all ticket sales. It is not surprising, then, that the ad campaigns and math behind lottery tickets are designed to keep players hooked.

The first known European lotteries were organized in the Roman Empire, primarily as a means of entertaining guests at dinner parties. Tickets were sold in exchange for prizes, which usually consisted of fancy dinnerware. Despite their modest prize offerings, these lotteries were incredibly popular and are believed to have helped finance public projects such as the construction of the Colosseum.

In colonial America, a society defined by its aversion to taxation, lotteries were a key financial source of both private and public ventures. Lotteries were used to fund everything from roads and canals to universities and churches, and even the Continental Congress held a lottery in 1776 to pay for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British.

Cohen argues that the modern lottery is a product of exigency, as state governments scrambled to find ways to balance their budgets without increasing taxes or cutting programs that would be unpopular with voters. As incomes declined and unemployment increased, the popularity of lottery gambling grew. In addition, the lottery is a lucrative business for its operators because of the fees paid by the states to promote and run the games.

Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia run a lottery. The six that don’t—Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada—either refuse to allow gambling or have opted out of the national lottery system, because they either already receive a share of lottery profits from the federal government or are unwilling to compete with Las Vegas. Even so, they are not immune from the lottery’s grip, as evidenced by the proliferation of privately run, state-approved scratch-off games that abound in these jurisdictions.

Posted in: Gambling