The History of the Lottery


Buying tickets for a lottery doesn’t necessarily increase your chances of winning. Unless you play numbers that have sentimental value, like those associated with birthdays and anniversaries, the odds of your selected sequence hitting are the same as anyone else’s. However, playing more tickets does slightly improve your odds. Using a system of selecting numbers that are close together can also reduce the likelihood of having to split a prize with other winners.

Lotteries have been around for a long time, but they really started to take off in the nineteen-sixties. By then, states were grappling with a series of budgetary crises, including population growth and rising inflation. Balancing the books became increasingly difficult without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which would have been politically unpalatable to many voters.

The lottery was a convenient solution, offering a low-risk alternative to higher-tax forms of revenue generation. It could be promoted as a virtuous activity that raised money for everything from building town fortifications to aiding the poor. The first recorded lotteries were held in the fourteen-hundreds; tickets cost ten shillings, which was a considerable sum back then, and a prize that was far larger than the current jackpot of more than half a billion dollars.

Even so, it isn’t easy to rebrand the lottery as a civic good. Its origins are entangled with moral and ethical questions, as the author of How to Win the Lottery explains. For example, in the early American colonies, lotteries fueled an obsession with unimaginable wealth. Lotteries were tangled up with the slave trade, too, sometimes in unpredictable ways: George Washington managed one whose prizes included human beings, and a formerly enslaved man won a South Carolina lottery, then used it to foment a slave rebellion.

Cohen writes that the lottery’s rise in modern times began when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. States, he says, had to balance their budgets while offering a generous social safety net and dealing with the effects of aging baby boomers on government coffers. Raising taxes was out of the question, but cuts could not be tolerated by voters, so lotteries stepped in.

Lotteries can be a lot of fun, but they’re also addictive. They’re not unlike tobacco or video games, and state lottery commissions aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction in order to keep people buying tickets. Moreover, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a lottery is a form of predatory capitalism that benefits the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. That’s something that we should all be very concerned about. And it is a big reason why I’m not in favor of legalizing sports betting, too.