The Hidden History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling that gives participants the chance to win money or goods. It has been around for centuries, and its roots go back to ancient times. The Old Testament mentions lotteries as a way of dividing land, and Roman emperors used them to distribute property or slaves. In the 17th century, Benjamin Franklin started a lottery to raise money for cannons and George Washington organized a lottery in which people could buy tickets engraved with his name. Later, public lotteries became popular in the United States and were a way for governments to bring in revenue without raising taxes.

In the immediate post-World War II period, states used lotteries to expand their range of services and avoid raising taxes that would hurt working class voters. Those lotteries weren’t just fun for people who won; they were “budgetary miracles,” writes Cohen, that allowed politicians to maintain existing services without putting up the kind of taxes that their constituents would oppose. That arrangement began to crumble in the 1960s as state revenues began to flatline and the affluent were no longer paying a disproportionate share of income tax.

When the lottery’s regressive nature became clear, critics began attacking it for moral reasons, including that winning a jackpot of $1 billion or more means that people should be compelled to give some of their wealth away. The argument goes that, in a society of increasing inequality, it’s morally wrong for a tiny minority to enjoy the vast rewards of global capitalism while leaving the rest of the population worse off.

Those arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny, however. A more reasonable view is that if the entertainment value or other non-monetary benefit of playing the lottery outweighs the disutility of losing money, then it makes sense for people to do so. This is why billboards and television commercials show pictures of big-ticket winners—it’s a marketing strategy that appeals to a basic human impulse.

But there’s more to the story than that. There’s also the hidden message that winning the lottery is a game of skill and strategy. That’s why you see ads that suggest that it’s important to pick numbers based on birthdays or other events, rather than following the crowd by picking sequences like 1-2-3-4-5-6.

The odds of winning the lottery are not 1 in 3, but actually more like 2 in 3. And as you continue to buy tickets, your chances of victory get better. That’s why seasoned winners like Richard Lustig and Stefan Mandel have developed strategies that are designed to maximize the number of tickets you can buy. They’ve figured out that, contrary to intuition, the likelihood of winning increases with each successive ticket you purchase. So if you’re buying multiple rolls, make sure to keep your ticket receipts to track how many wins you’ve had so far. It could help you get to the next level.