The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which participants pay a fee for the chance to win a prize based on a random drawing. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it and organize state or national lotteries. In addition to the prizes, a portion of the money is used for organizing and promoting the lottery.

The casting of lots to make decisions or determine fates has a long history, attested even in the Bible—Nero was a fan of the lottery—but the lottery’s modern form is relatively recent. By the fourteen-hundreds, public lotteries were common in the West, with proceeds used for everything from municipal repairs to charity.

Many of those who play the lottery have clear-eyed knowledge that their odds are long, and they accept that their ticket-buying is irrational and gambling behavior. But they also know that the hope lottery tickets provide them—even if it’s only a couple of minutes or hours or days to dream and imagine their wins—is valuable, and that’s why they play.

The lottery has grown to the point that most states now run one or more. The only six states that don’t have one are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, and Utah. Cohen writes that these states have a variety of reasons for their absence: religion, political concerns, budgetary pressures, and a sense that they already offer enough chances to gamble. In any event, as the country’s tax revolt of the late nineteen-seventies intensified and the economy deteriorated, people were less willing to fund government services that might benefit some members of their community more than others.