The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which people buy tickets for a chance to win a prize based on a random drawing. The most common prize is money. However, prizes can also include goods or services. Some lotteries are conducted by state governments; others are private or joint ventures. In general, the state legislates a monopoly for itself and establishes a public corporation to run the lottery; starts with a limited number of relatively simple games; and then, due to pressure for increased revenues, progressively adds new games to maintain or increase its revenue base.

The casting of lots for decisions and the determination of fates has a long history; the modern lottery derives from that practice, although it has become considerably more sophisticated. The first lottery-like public competitions were probably held in the 15th century, when towns in Burgundy and Flanders aimed to raise funds for town fortifications or to help the poor. Francis I of France encouraged the growth of lotteries throughout his kingdom.

In the earliest lotteries, the prize was a fixed sum of money; later, as the number of participants grew and more complicated rules were developed, the size of the prize tended to grow. The prize may be distributed to several winners, or the winning ticket may be “rolled over,” meaning that it is added to the next drawing’s jackpot; in either case, very substantial amounts can eventually be won.

Since the 1970s, state lotteries have evolved in ways that allow for a variety of games with increasingly large prize pools. A key innovation was the introduction of instant games, which require no waiting for a future date to determine whether you are a winner; winners are determined as soon as all the tickets have been sold. These games are more popular with players than traditional drawings, which can take weeks or months to complete.

Despite the popularity of these instant games, the bulk of lottery revenue continues to come from the traditional drawing contests. It is estimated that the average household spends $90 per year on these games. The bulk of those who participate in state lotteries come from middle-income neighborhoods; fewer proportionally come from low-income communities.

Because the lottery is run as a business with an eye to maximizing revenues, it relies on advertising. The main message of this marketing is that playing the lottery is fun and, even if you don’t win, you will have a good time. Critics charge that this message obscures the regressivity of the lottery and the fact that it is, at its core, a form of gambling. Some experts on the lottery are concerned that the promotion of gambling will have adverse consequences for poorer people and problem gamblers. Others argue that this concern is misplaced.