What is a Lottery?


A lottery is an arrangement by which prizes are allocated by a process that relies entirely on chance. Lotteries typically involve a state or other public agency drawing lots to select winners of a prize, such as money or goods. The practice has a long history and has been used by many governments for a variety of purposes, including raising funds for towns, wars, colleges, and public-works projects. The word lottery is derived from the Dutch noun lot, which is itself a diminutive of the Middle Dutch word lotinge, or “action of drawing lots” (the first known use of the term is in a 1612 print).

The basic structure of a state-run lottery is simple: people pay a nominal fee, select numbers, and hope that they match those drawn by a machine. The winner receives the prize, which can range from a few dollars to a multimillion-dollar jackpot. The amount of the prize is determined by the state or other organization that runs the lottery, and a percentage normally goes toward organizing and promoting the event.

Ticket sales are often boosted by super-sized prizes, which generate huge amounts of free publicity on newscasts and web sites. But as soon as those oversized prizes are won, ticket sales typically drop. So lottery organizers must balance the attraction of large prizes with the need to attract enough players to sustain the game.

One result of this dynamic is that state lotteries tend to develop broad, specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (who sell the tickets); suppliers (heavy contributions by them to state political campaigns are routinely reported); teachers (in states in which lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who become accustomed to the steady flow of extra revenue). These groups can be very effective in lobbying to keep a lottery in place.