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The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game of chance in which people have the opportunity to win prizes based on the drawing of numbers. The casting of lots to determine fates has a long history in human society—Nero loved lotteries—but the use of lotteries to raise money is much more recent, dating to the Middle Ages, where it was used for everything from deciding the winners of medieval games to determining who would keep Jesus’ clothes after his Crucifixion. In the modern world, lotteries are a common form of gambling. Currently, 44 states and the District of Columbia run their own lotteries. And, as Cohen explains, almost everyone plays them at one time or another: You can buy scratch-off tickets while buying groceries at Dollar General, or pick up Powerball and Mega Millions tickets along with your Snickers bar at the gas pump.

State legislators are aware of how popular these games are. As they promote them, they typically highlight the proceeds from the games as being devoted to a particular public good like education. It is a compelling argument, and it has been successful in winning broad public approval for the lotteries. Indeed, it has been successful enough that “the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not appear to have much impact on whether or when a lottery is adopted.”

The story of how the lottery became so popular is well told in this book. While it includes some early history, the author primarily focuses on the resurgence of the games in the nineteen-sixties, when awareness of all the money to be made from the games collided with a state funding crisis. The growing population, the Vietnam War, and the cost of a large social safety net made it difficult for many states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which are deeply unpopular with voters.

To ease the financial pressure on state governments, legislators turned to the lotteries for money. The revival of the games that ensued was fueled in part by a shift in moral thinking about gambling. Dismissing long-standing ethical objections to the practice, new advocates argued that since people are going to gamble anyway, government might as well get in on the profits.

The result is that today’s lotteries are a complex web of probabilities and possibilities, where the results depend on more than just luck or skill. To have any chance of winning, you need to play smart—and that means following proven tips. These expert strategies can give you a greater chance of winning big—like the jackpot that rewrote this couple’s life.

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