What is a Lottery?


Lottery is a form of gambling that involves buying tickets with the hope of winning a prize. The casting of lots for deciding fates and distributing property has a long history, including several examples in the Bible, but public lotteries are relatively recent. The first known lottery was held during the Roman Empire, for city repairs. In colonial era America, public lotteries played an important role in raising money for a range of projects, from paving streets to building churches. They also helped finance Harvard, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and other colleges. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British in 1776.

State lotteries have been established in many ways, but they all follow a common pattern: the state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a public agency or corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a cut of the profits); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and due to constant pressure for additional revenues progressively expands both the prizes and the variety of games available.

Most of the time, public officials justify the expansion of lotteries by emphasizing their painless nature and their contribution to overall state revenue. But these arguments tend to shift over time, as the complexities of a lottery’s operation come into play. For example, the cost of organizing and promoting the lottery must be deducted from the prize pool. In addition, the decision must be made how much of the prize pool will go to winners versus costs and profit.