What Is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game in which participants pay a small sum for the chance to win a larger prize. The game’s popularity is such that governments in most nations have legalized it, although many people criticize it as addictive and socially harmful. Nonetheless, it generates significant revenue for its sponsors and is often seen as an alternative to raising taxes. The question of whether it is appropriate for government to promote gambling is one that has been debated since the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, it is not nearly as objectionable as imposing sin taxes on vices like alcohol and tobacco, and lotteries make no pretense of being socially beneficial.

A key element of a lottery is the drawing, which must be random to ensure that chance determines winners. Tickets or counterfoils are mixed by some mechanical means—often shaking, tossing, or a computer’s randomizing algorithm—and the winning symbols or numbers selected from the pool are then extracted. In addition to a selection procedure, all lotteries require a pool of tickets or counterfoils and some method of recording and communicating purchases. A computer system is usually employed because it can store large amounts of information and handle high volumes of transactions.

In most cases, a state legislature creates a monopoly for itself and establishes an agency or public corporation to run the lottery (although private firms are sometimes licensed in return for a share of the profits). The lottery begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games and then expands its scope and complexity as it becomes successful and pressured for additional revenues mount.

Some of the first recorded lotteries were held in Europe in the 15th century as a way to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. The word “lottery” probably derives from Middle Dutch lotinge, which is thought to be a calque on Latin lotium, meaning “fate.”

Regardless of the game’s complexity, a number of basic requirements must be met to be considered a lottery: a set of rules for determining prizes and frequencies, and a pool of tickets or counterfoils from which winners are selected. A percentage of the total pool must be deducted for organizing and promoting costs, and another percentage may go to taxes and profit for the state or other sponsor. The remaining portion available to be won by participants must be carefully balanced between few very large prizes and more smaller ones.

The success of a lottery depends on how it is perceived by its players. For example, if the lottery is seen as benefiting a specific public good, such as education, it can attract wide public approval and support even in times of financial stress. In contrast, a lottery can lose public support if its proceeds are seen as supporting a tax increase or reduction in an otherwise desirable public service. This is a risk that all lottery organizers must carefully weigh before proceeding with any new games.