How the Lottery Works


A lottery is a game of chance in which people try to win a prize by matching numbers or symbols. The prizes vary from cash to goods or services, with some requiring a specified percentage of the total number of tickets sold. The numbers or symbols are chosen by random drawing, usually with the use of a computer. In addition, there is a procedure for mixing or “shaking” the tickets to ensure that only chance determines the winners.

Lotteries have a long history, going back at least to the Han dynasty in China (205–187 BC). There are also records of lotteries in the Low Countries as early as the fifteenth century, where they were used for public works projects and poor relief. In the modern era, states began to sponsor state-run lotteries as a way of raising revenue for public services without increasing taxes or cutting government spending, both of which would have been extremely unpopular with voters.

Advocates of the lottery argued that a statewide lottery could cover one line item in the state budget, typically education but occasionally elder care or support for veterans. They could thus present the lottery as a neutral, nonpartisan choice for voters, with a vote in favor of the lottery a vote against cuts to a popular service. This strategy was flawed from the start. The odds of winning the lottery grew worse with each increase in jackpot size, and the higher they were, the more people wanted to play. As a result, the lottery quickly became a major source of state revenue.

The huge jackpots resulting from super-sized drawings are not real, of course, but they give the games free publicity on news sites and on television, and they encourage people to buy more tickets. The jackpots actually amount to what the winners would receive if the total prize pool were invested in an annuity that paid out in 30 annual payments, each increasing by 5%. This is why the amounts advertised are so large, and it’s why they grow faster than you might expect.

Many states have a lottery, and Americans spend billions of dollars on them each year. Some play for fun, while others believe that winning the lottery will improve their lives. But the odds are so low that it’s almost impossible to win, and the economics of how the lottery works are not on your side if you want to win.

In the short story “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson describes a group of people who gather to play a game that involves picking six numbers from fifty. The reader expects the lottery to be beneficial to the villagers in some way, but the events of the story reveal humankind’s hypocrisy and evil nature. They greet each other and exchange bits of gossip, then “manhandle each other without a flinch of pity.” This shows that humans are capable of deceit, even if they are not always aware of it.