The History of the Lottery


Lotteries have a long history, going back centuries. Often they were used in religious contexts to distribute wealth and land, though there are also records of them being used for material gain. But Cohen focuses chiefly on lottery in its modern form, which started in the nineteen-sixties as state budget crises arose and states began seeking revenue sources that wouldn’t enrage anti-tax voters.

Lottery’s popularity grew as people became obsessed with the idea that they could win big, even if it only meant a few thousand dollars. Moreover, the number of states offering a lottery grew to include almost all states.

Many states argue that the money raised by the lottery is a small drop in the bucket of a large state budget, and that if the state continues to grow, it will eventually have enough revenue to pay for all of its services without raising taxes or cutting services. But this argument is flawed for a few reasons.

First, the lottery is not a true “tax,” in the sense that it does not raise any new money. The money it raises comes from the sale of tickets. The money is pooled and then distributed to the winners according to rules that vary by state. The money is not earmarked for a specific purpose, and it can be spent on anything from fixing roads to building public works projects. It is the same sort of money that is given to businesses for advertising or to employees for training.

In the early colonial era, lottery was a common way to raise money for paving streets and constructing wharves, and it was the source of the famous quote by Thomas Jefferson that Americans would prefer “a little chance of winning a great deal to a sure thing of winning nothing.” But in America, as elsewhere, lotteries got tangled up with the slave trade in unpredictable ways. Denmark Vesey, for example, purchased his freedom with the prize of a ticket to a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

The casting of lots to determine fates or property has a long history, including in the Bible. The first known lottery to offer tickets with a material prize was held in the Low Countries in the 15th century for such purposes as town fortifications, and it is likely that this type of lottery predates American independence.

In the modern lottery, you can choose to be randomly assigned a set of numbers or mark a box on your playslip to accept a computer-generated set of numbers. If you go with the latter, it is a good idea to develop a chart of the “random” outside numbers that repeat, and pay special attention to those that appear only once, which are called “singletons.” A group of singletons will signal a winning card 60-90% of the time. Develop this skill by studying scratch-off tickets and experimenting with other games. You will quickly become more confident in your ability to predict winning numbers.