What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game of chance in which numbers are drawn to win prizes. The term may also refer to a decision-making process in which random choices are made, such as the draft of members of a sports team or allocation of scarce medical treatment. The word is probably derived from the Latin loterie, from the Greek for “fateful choice.”

The first known European lotteries took place during the Roman Empire, as part of Saturnalian feasts. Each guest was given a ticket, and prizes were typically fancy items like dinnerware. The modern sense of the word originated in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders, where town governments raised money to fortify defenses and give aid to the poor.

In the United States, state laws authorize lotteries and delegate their administration to a lottery board or commission. These agencies select and license retailers, train employees of those retailers to use lottery terminals, sell and redeem tickets, pay high-tier prizes, and promote the games. They also ensure that retailers and players comply with state law and rules.

Many people play the lottery for pure entertainment value, or because they enjoy the experience of scratching a ticket. But lotteries have a bigger purpose: they dangle the promise of instant riches in an era of inequality and limited social mobility. Lottery advertisements are coded, urging people to “play today.” It’s a message that plays on our basic human impulse to take risks. But that’s a dangerous myth. The fact is that lottery playing is regressive. It’s most prevalent among those in the bottom quintile of income distribution.