The History of the Lottery


A lottery is any contest that allocates prizes by chance. Prizes may be cash or goods. The term “lottery” is usually used for state-sponsored gambling games where the proceeds go to public good projects, though it can also describe private promotions that award prizes based on random chance. Examples of the latter include giving away units in a subsidized housing project or kindergarten placements at a top school.

The lottery is a longtime fixture in the world of sports. The NBA, for example, holds a lottery to determine the first pick in each year’s draft. The winner of the lottery gets the opportunity to select one of the best young players in the league. This gives teams an incentive to spend big money to improve their rosters.

In Cohen’s telling, the modern lottery was born in the nineteen-sixties when a rising population and the costs of inflation caused states to run short on funding. Balancing the budget became increasingly difficult without raising taxes or cutting services, both options that would enrage an anti-tax electorate. So, in a bid to raise revenue and appease voters, New Hampshire approved the first state-run lottery, and its popularity spread across the country.

Cohen’s book traces the evolution of the lottery from its roots as a pastime popular with ancient Romans—Nero was known to be a fan—to its modern incarnation as an instrument of government. He argues that the popularity of the lottery was driven by growing awareness of how much money can be made in the gambling business, and that this knowledge fed people’s desire to win the jackpot.

A key theme is how lottery advocates dismissed ethical objections by arguing that people were going to gamble anyway, so the government might as well pocket some of the profits. This logic has since been applied to other forms of public finance, such as the distribution of heroin in Italy under the auspices of the d’Este family in the seventeenth century.

The most famous lotteries are the ones that dish out huge prizes—like a billion dollars—to paying participants. These mega-prizes drive lottery sales, and they help promote the game by getting lots of free publicity on news sites and on TV shows. However, these super-sized jackpots have their downsides: They make winning less likely and lead people to play more frequently, thus lowering the average prize size.

Most state-run lotteries have a pool of prizes, which is the total value of all tickets sold. This pool is then reduced by the cost of promoting the lottery and other expenses, including taxes or other revenues that the promoter collects. The remaining prize pool is divided into a large and many small prizes. The larger prizes are often predetermined, while the smaller prizes are determined by drawing numbers from a machine. The fact that a graph of application rows shows approximately the same color indicates that the lottery is unbiased, meaning that each row is awarded the same position a similar number of times.