The History of the Lottery

The lottery has long had a powerful hold on our collective imagination, and while it might seem strange to us now in a world of Instagram and the Kardashians, its roots run deep. In the fourteenth century, the casting of lots to determine fates and possessions was widespread in Europe, where it was used to finance town fortifications and charity. By the seventeenth, state lotteries were booming in the Low Countries, where prize money was often paid for specific goods or services. The practice spread to America, where aristocrats and the emerging middle class both took part. Lotteries became a rare point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson, who thought them not much riskier than farming, and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped what would become known as the essential lottery principle: that all “would prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a large probability of losing much.”

The modern incarnation of the lottery, Cohen argues, began in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. A booming population and rising inflation were taking their toll on state budgets, which could not be balanced without raising taxes or cutting services—both of which proved highly unpopular with voters. The result was a surge in private-sector gamblers, and politicians began looking at the potential of state lotteries to provide a relatively painless source of revenue.

Until the 1970s, state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles: the public bought tickets in advance of a drawing that would be held weeks or even months later. But innovations in the era of scratch-off tickets dramatically altered the industry. Today, Americans spend $80 billion on these games every year—more than $600 per household. The vast majority of players are white, and they come from middle-income neighborhoods; Cohen suggests that the low-income population is less likely to play.

In addition to scratch-off tickets, most state lotteries offer a variety of online games that claim to increase the odds of winning by analyzing patterns of past results. For instance, one site advises players to select numbers that reflect personal ties, such as birthdays and anniversaries. But Clotfelter points out that these ties can actually decrease the odds of winning. The reason? The same numbers appear more frequently than others.

Another common strategy involves buying multiple tickets and spreading the stakes. In this case, the more tickets you buy, the better your chances of winning—though it also increases the amount of time you spend playing. A more reasonable approach, according to Clotfelter, is to stick with a set of numbers that have a good track record. It might be helpful to consult a chart of the most popular numbers or ask locals for their favorite numbers. And, of course, you should always check the odds before you buy.