What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a game of chance in which participants pay for a ticket (usually for $1), select a group of numbers, or have machines randomly spit them out, and win prizes if their numbers match those selected by the machine. Prizes may be cash or goods. The origin of the word is uncertain, but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it may be a variant of Middle Dutch loterie, or a calque on the Middle French loterie, which itself comes from the Latin lotium, meaning “drawing lots”; the latter referring to a legal system of drawing lots to determine rights and privileges.

Lottery critics charge that the games encourage irrational behavior, including compulsive gambling and the regressive impact on lower-income populations; deceive consumers about their odds of winning; misrepresent the amount of money won (which is paid in installments over many years, with inflation dramatically eroding its current value); and otherwise engage in fraudulent marketing. They also suck states dry of much-needed revenue.

Some of that money goes toward administrative and vendor costs, while the rest is divvied up among various projects that each state designates. Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman points out that people who choose significant dates or sequences like birthdays and months—instead of using random numbers—have a lower probability of winning, because other players are likely to pick the same numbers. He advises buying Quick Picks instead. This way, you don’t have to split the prize with anyone who happens to have the same number combinations.