What is a Lottery?


A gambling game or method of raising money in which a large number of tickets are sold and a drawing is held for prizes. A lottery is also any scheme for the distribution of prizes by chance: to look upon life as a lottery is to feel that it is not what one has planned but rather what one may or may not be lucky enough to experience. Lotteries are usually organized by governments for public charitable purposes. The practice of distributing property by lottery is found in the Bible; Moses instructed the Israelites to divide land among themselves by lot, and Roman emperors gave away slaves and property as part of their Saturnalian feasts.

In the United States, state governments operate a number of lotteries. The largest is the Powerball, which has paid out over $70 billion in prizes to its players since its launch in 1992. Despite the enormous sums of money that are awarded, only about 50 percent of Americans play the lottery regularly, and the player base is disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. This skews the results of the games and creates other problems, such as the fact that many of these same people have trouble with compulsive gambling.

The word “lottery” comes from the Dutch noun lot (“fate”), via Middle French loterie (a calque on Lotteria), which itself is probably derived from Old English hlote “action of drawing lots.” In general, any event or activity that involves selecting people by chance is a lottery: the outcome of a sporting competition is often a lottery; so is the election of a president or prime minister. The fact that the lottery is a form of gambling often causes it to be regulated. While some governments outlaw it altogether, others endorse it to the extent of establishing a national or state lottery and regulating its operation.

In a lottery, applicants purchase chances in exchange for money or other valuable items, with the prize money being drawn at random. The earliest known lotteries date to the Low Countries in the 15th century. Lottery was a popular entertainment at public dinners, in which hosts distributed pieces of wood with symbols on them to their guests and toward the end of the evening held a drawing for prizes that the winners took home.

Lotteries are a classic case of government policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with the result that the overall public interest receives only intermittent consideration. When a lottery is established, the authority for its operation and the pressures on its officials come from legislative and executive branches of the government and from a number of lobbies.

Moreover, because the primary function of a lottery is to maximize revenues, its advertising campaigns are necessarily focused on persuading as many people as possible to buy tickets. These promotional efforts are at cross-purposes with the overall public interest. Consequently, it is difficult for any state to develop a coherent lottery policy.