The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which participants purchase a ticket, draw numbers, and win prizes if their numbers match those that are randomly drawn by a machine. Prizes range from cash to goods and services. Generally, tickets are sold at retail outlets for a small fee. Some states have legalized it, while others do not. Regardless of legality, the lottery has proven to be an effective way to generate revenue for many states, especially in times of fiscal crisis.

While the casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long history in human culture, lotteries are relatively new. The first public lotteries were run during the fourteen-hundreds to pay for town fortifications in the Low Countries and, later, to provide charity for the poor. The first lottery to distribute money as a prize was held in 1466 in Bruges, Belgium. It cost ten shillings, and winners were free of any criminal charges (except for piracy, murder, and treason).

In the late twentieth century, as states searched for budgetary solutions that would not rile their anti-tax electorates, they turned to the lottery as an easy source of income. While critics argued that it was not ethical for governments to profit from a form of gambling, advocates defended it by claiming that people were going to gamble anyway, so the government might as well pocket the profits.

As a result, state-run lotteries proliferated in the nineteen-thirties and beyond. Amid a time of economic turmoil, the state-run lottery became a popular form of gambling for those who could not afford other forms of entertainment and were desperate for a shot at wealth. These lottery players were typically middle-class and working-class whites. As the nation’s demographics changed, however, the popularity of the lottery dipped.

Lottery advertising is rife with deception. Critics charge that it often presents misleading odds of winning the jackpot, inflates the value of a prize (lottery jackpots are paid in equal annual installments over twenty years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding its current value), and appeals to stereotypes. In addition, there are significant socio-economic differences in lottery play: Men play more than women; blacks and Hispanics more than whites; and the young and old play less than those in the middle of the age spectrum.

Those looking to increase their chances of winning should consider buying a number that has not been used in recent draws. Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman also recommends choosing random lottery numbers rather than picking a sequence or numbers that relate to significant dates. He adds that choosing a series of consecutive numbers or those that end in the same digits will decrease your chances of winning because hundreds of other people may also be playing them. When in doubt, he suggests joining a lottery pool with friends or co-workers to increase your chances of winning. A service called Jackpocket allows you to do this for Powerball and Mega Millions.