What Is a Lottery?


A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are awarded by chance. Prizes may be money, goods, or services. The word lottery is probably derived from the Middle Dutch noun lot, which in turn is likely to be a calque of the French verb loterie “action of drawing lots,” and the root of English word lottery, which is thought to derive from Old English lotos “fate.” Lotteries have been around for centuries, though they are only now being widely used by government agencies. The first state-sponsored lotteries were established in the Low Countries during the 15th century. They were used to raise funds for town fortifications, and also to help the poor.

In colonial America, lottery-sponsored projects financed roads, canals, churches, schools, and colleges. Benjamin Franklin organized a lottery to purchase cannons for Philadelphia’s defense against the British in 1776. George Washington sponsored a lottery in 1768 to build a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains, although his lottery was unsuccessful. Many of the tickets bearing Washington’s signature have become collector items.

Lotteries are often promoted as a way of raising money for state-sponsored projects without burdening taxpayers with additional taxes. While they may do this, they also promote gambling, which is likely to have negative consequences for the poor and problem gamblers. Lotteries are also run as businesses whose primary function is to maximize revenues. This approach raises questions about whether they should be considered public policy at all.

Most lotteries are played by purchasing tickets for a specific drawing at some future date. This can be as short as a few months in the future, or as long as several years. The odds of winning are very small, but the total pool of prize money can be substantial. There are various strategies that can be employed to improve a player’s chances of winning, such as buying more tickets or choosing numbers that are not close together. Romanian-born mathematician Stefan Mandel’s formula for selecting lottery numbers has been proven to increase a player’s odds of winning by 14 percent.

The evolution of the modern state lottery has been remarkably similar in virtually every jurisdiction. The state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes an agency or public corporation to operate the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in exchange for a portion of the profits); starts operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure from constant demand for new revenues, progressively expands the lottery by adding new games. The result is a classic case of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall oversight.