What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game of chance in which numbers are drawn for prizes. Examples include a draw for units in a housing project or kindergarten placements. A financial lottery is a game in which people pay money for a ticket, select a group of numbers, or have machines randomly spit out digits, and then win a prize if enough of their numbers match those drawn by a machine. The latter form of lottery has become very popular, and in America it’s often marketed with the promise that you can “win big” or even make your entire annual income if you play regularly.

Despite their seemingly fantastic odds, winning a lottery jackpot is not as unlikely as some might think. Cohen explains that the odds of picking the right combination of numbers in a particular drawing are very small, but many players assume that they can improve their chances by playing more frequently. Unfortunately, each lottery drawing is independent of the previous one, so buying more tickets will not increase your odds of winning.

Cohen traces the evolution of lottery from its early days as an ancient pastime (Nero was a fan) to its modern incarnation, when it became a tool for raising state revenue. In the nineteen-sixties, as America’s population grew, inflation rose, and war costs mounted, states faced a funding crisis. Balancing budgets required increasing taxes or cutting services, which was unpopular with voters. Lotteries were hailed as an alternative to taxation and helped fund everything from civil defense to church construction.

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