The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a game in which participants win a prize by guessing a set of numbers. Generally, the numbers are drawn from one to fifty-nine, though they can vary in number and range for each lottery. The chances of winning are quite low, but some people become rich and famous through it.

The history of lotteries goes back centuries, with many early civilizations embracing them as a way to distribute property or slaves. Lotteries became common in America, too, after European colonists introduced the games. But while their popularity in the United States grew, they generated strong opposition among Christians and led to numerous prohibitions against gambling.

In fact, the origins of lotteries are more complex than a simple reworking of a betting game in seventeenth-century Genoa. Lottery isn’t self-evidently innovative, or even particularly appealing. It requires guessing a relatively large number of numbers, and it has absurdly low odds—which is exactly why it has revolutionized the gaming industry.

But despite the low odds, most people don’t buy tickets to win millions of dollars. They don’t expect to ever stand on a stage with an oversized check in hand. What they’re buying, Cohen says, is a fantasy, a brief time of thinking “What would I do if I won?”

As jackpots have grown, so has spending on tickets. Nevertheless, the percentage of proceeds that go to charity is relatively small. Many states also use some of the money to finance local services and programs, including parks and education.