What is a Lottery?


A game of chance in which numbered tickets are sold and winners are selected by lot. The prizes are usually cash. Often sponsored by a state or private organization to raise funds. Also called lotto, and in some countries keno or housie.

In the United States, lottery plays are a major source of revenue contributing billions of dollars annually. But the odds of winning are astronomically low. So why do so many people play? And how does that money actually help them?

The answer to both of these questions lies in a fundamental mistake about the way we view gambling. We tend to assume that those who play the lottery are irrational. We think they’ve been duped and that they don’t know the odds are bad. And implicitly, we believe that we’re smarter than them because we don’t buy tickets.

The earliest known public lotteries were in the Low Countries during the 15th century, when town records show that local residents sold numbered tickets to win money for town fortifications and to help the poor. Later in colonial America, lotteries helped finance roads, canals, bridges and colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia) and the University of Pennsylvania. Lotteries were also used to raise money for the Continental Congress in 1776 to fund the American Revolution. Lottery name derives from the Middle Dutch term for “lot” and is cognate with Old English hlot “what falls to someone by lot,” Old Norse hlutr (“share”), and German Los (“lot”). Lottery commissions now promote their games as fun and enjoyable. But the marketing message obscures the regressiveness of the lottery, and masks the ways it hurts people who play.