What is a Lottery?

Lottery is a game of chance in which participants pay a small sum and then hope to win a large prize by matching numbers drawn at random. It is a form of gambling, and in most states it is regulated by law. The financial lottery is a common form, but some state-sponsored lotteries offer prizes other than cash.

The idea of distributing property or other assets by lot dates back to ancient times. It was used in Israel and Rome—Nero loved his lotteries—and is attested to in the Bible, which has a number of references to the casting of lots for everything from slaves to land. During the nineteen-sixties, when America was experiencing population growth and rising inflation, state governments found it impossible to balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were highly unpopular with voters.

To solve the problem, many states introduced state-sponsored lotteries, in which a portion of proceeds went to public causes. New Hampshire led the way, and the modern era of lotteries took off from there. By now, most states have one, and their sales are enormous.

But not all players go into the lottery with clear eyes. Some, especially those in rural pockets of the country where English is spoken and people speak archaic European languages, have a deeply rooted reverence for tradition, and the village lottery seems harmless and even quaint. They line up in the church, an old man quotes a traditional rhyme (“Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon”) and the people begin to draw their slips.