What is a Lottery?

A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold, and prizes given to the holders of some of these numbers, often cash or goods. Lotteries may be public or private and are usually regulated by law, although some states prohibit them. Often, players choose their own numbers or numbers are chosen randomly by computer. Sometimes, lottery numbers are drawn by hand.

The word lottery derives from the Dutch noun lot meaning “fate” or “fateful thing.” Lotteries have been used for centuries to collect money, especially in times of poverty or for public usages. They are popular and often hailed as a painless form of taxation. The oldest running lottery is the Staatsloterij in the Netherlands, which began in 1726.

In colonial America, lotteries played a major role in financing public and private ventures. For example, Benjamin Franklin held a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British during the American Revolution. Lotteries also financed roads, churches, libraries, canals, colleges, and even slaves.

While a one-in-a-million chance is indeed very small, many critics charge that the marketing of lotteries exploits this notion of luck to promote unsubstantiated claims about the odds of winning and to falsely imply that lottery revenues support important public services. They also argue that a lot of lottery advertising misleads people about the amount of money they would receive if they won the jackpot (for example, by inflating the prize to reflect the amount paid for the ticket), and about how quickly inflation and taxes will diminish the actual payout.