How the Lottery Works


In many cases, lottery revenues grow rapidly after they’re introduced but then plateau. This prompts the introduction of new games aimed at maintaining or increasing those revenues. In the case of state lotteries, revenues are often a significant portion of state budgets. This can create tensions between the desire to introduce games that will maximize revenue and a concern to introduce games that are fair.

The concept of dividing property or other goods by lot is as old as humankind. For example, the Lord instructed Moses to divide land among the people of Israel by lot, and Roman emperors gave away slaves and other property in a similar way during Saturnalian feasts. The practice continued through the centuries, and it was common in America in the 1700s. The Continental Congress voted to hold a lottery to raise funds for the Revolutionary War, and smaller public lotteries were held to fund such projects as the construction of Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, and Union colleges.

While the overwhelming majority of lottery players lose, some do win. These winners are usually quite wealthy, and they tend to spend the winnings on more lotteries, hoping that their next ticket will be the one. They also develop all sorts of quote-unquote systems based on “lucky numbers” or lucky stores or times of day to buy tickets. But even the most wealthy lottery winner is likely to find himself in troubled financial waters within a few years.