What is the Lottery?


Lottery is one of the world’s oldest games. It owes its origins to the casting of lots, an ancient practice used for everything from selecting kings in the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan) to divining God’s will after Jesus’ Crucifixion. But it’s also one of the most popular pastimes on the planet. In the United States alone, the lottery generates billions of dollars in revenue each year. Most of the people who play it don’t do so because they’re compulsive gamblers, but rather because they dream of a better life.

The basics of a lottery are simple enough: a pool of numbers, a prize to be won by someone who guesses the right number(s), and some way of recording each bettor’s identity and amount staked. Often, each bettor writes his name on a ticket and deposits it with the organization for shuffling and possible selection in the drawing. Other times, he simply buys a numbered receipt in the knowledge that it will be entered into the pool and his fate determined later.

The lottery’s appeal grew in the nineteen-seventies, Cohen argues, as states struggled for budgetary solutions that wouldn’t offend an increasingly anti-tax electorate. At the same time, many people were losing the faith that hard work and good habits would lead to a secure middle class. Dreams of winning millions of dollars by spending a few bucks on a lottery ticket became an escape from the dreary reality of economic decline.