The Official Lottery

Official lottery is a type of game in which numbers are drawn randomly for a prize. In many countries, the lottery is operated by a state government or public service agency. Several governments have also privatized the operation of lotteries.

While the lottery might seem like a modern cultural invention, the concept goes back centuries. The oldest known lottery slips are keno tickets that date to the Chinese Han dynasty (205 and 187 BC). The ancient Romans, Greeks, and Arabs used games of chance to raise money for a variety of purposes, including military campaigns.

In colonial America, lotteries were popular ways to fund projects that were both private and public, from churches and schools to roads and canals. Lottery proceeds helped build Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Harvard, Yale, and Princeton universities, and the Continental Congress ran a lottery to pay for the Revolutionary War.

State-run lotteries became, as Cohen writes, “budgetary miracles: a way for states to make revenue appear out of thin air.” At a time when voters were averse to raising taxes, politicians could justify introducing the lottery as an alternative to cuts to essential services.

But for every story of lottery rags-to-riches, there is one of a cursed winner whose life went downhill after winning the big jackpot. This cottage industry of horror stories has led to calls for lotteries to stop paying out large prizes, citing the possibility that they will lure people into playing for money they might otherwise spend on necessities or invest in their families’ financial futures.