The History of Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling in which lots are purchased for the chance to win a prize. Some of these prizes are cash and some are goods or services. Some people believe that lottery plays a large role in American culture, while others say it is an example of a harmful addiction. Regardless of your opinion, it is important to understand the basics of lottery before you play.

Many governments regulate the operation of lottery games and have rules that must be followed by bettor and operator. The most basic requirement is that the lottery organizer record the identities and amounts staked by each bettor. This information may be stored in a database or on paper. Alternatively, each bettor may write his name on a ticket that is deposited with the lottery organization for later shuffling and selection in the drawing. Many modern lotteries use computer systems to record the bettors’ identification and amounts staked. This system is also used to print tickets for sale at retail shops. Lottery organizations also must be careful not to engage in mail fraud or other violations of postal regulations.

The earliest evidence of lotteries dates back to the Roman Empire—Nero was a big fan—and to the biblical tradition of casting lots for everything from who gets the first pick of the best college talent to what happens to Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion. But they really took off in Europe in the fifteenth century, when cities held public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and the poor. The word “lottery” is thought to come from the Dutch noun loter, meaning drawing lots, or perhaps from Middle French loterie, which was in turn a calque on Latin loteria.

In the United States, early lotteries were tangled up with slavery in surprising ways. George Washington managed a Virginia lottery whose prizes included human beings, and Denmark Vesey won a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave revolt. Nonetheless, lottery games provided a rare point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson, who considered them not much riskier than farming, and Alexander Hamilton, who understood that most people would prefer a small chance at winning a great deal to a big chance at winning little.

In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, America’s obsession with unimaginable wealth, including the dream of winning a multimillion-dollar lottery jackpot, coincided with a decline in financial security for most working people. Incomes fell, job security disappeared, and pensions and health care costs rose. Lotteries offered a solution to budgetary crises that did not enrage antitax voters, and the number of state-sponsored lotteries exploded. By the late nineties, when lotteries started offering billion-dollar jackpots, the chances of winning were much smaller than ever before. Yet, despite the odds, many people still wanted to play. This paradox has proved perplexing to economists. The reason is simple: the higher the prize, the more people will want to buy a ticket. That’s why, to keep ticket sales up, the odds are progressively reduced.