What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a type of gambling in which prizes, often money, are awarded by chance. It is distinguished from other types of gambling such as poker, roulette, and blackjack, which require a payment of some sort in exchange for the opportunity to participate.

A modern version of the lottery is a computerized game in which players mark a number or series of numbers on a ticket. Most modern lotteries offer a choice to let the computer pick your numbers for you if you don’t want to spend time choosing them yourself.

The first state-sponsored lotteries in Europe were held as early as the first half of the 15th century, and the word is believed to have been borrowed from Middle Dutch Lotinge (perhaps via Old French lotterie). Lotteries are a common way for governments to raise funds and are considered to be a form of voluntary taxation. They were even used by the Continental Congress to help fund the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson regarded them as no riskier than farming, but Alexander Hamilton grasped their essence: “Everybody is willing to hazard trifling sums for the hope of considerable gain.”

The irrational hope of winning is what drives people to play the lottery. But there’s also something else going on: In an era of income inequality and limited social mobility, it’s no wonder that lottery ads dangle the promise of instant riches to a wide audience. Despite the fact that, in real terms, lottery proceeds make up only a small fraction of state budgets, pro-lottery advocates have found new ways to pitch the games.