The Elements of a Lottery


The lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn at random and the people who have those numbers on their tickets win prizes. It’s also a phrase used to describe anything that depends on chance, like which judges are assigned to a case.

In the fourteenth century, it was common for towns in the Low Countries to hold lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and charity for the poor. By the eighteenth century, the practice had spread to England, where King Charles II chartered the country’s first state-run lotteries in 1626 to fund a broad range of public usages, including building canals and supplying soldiers for the war against France.

In colonial America, lotteries were especially popular and played a major role in financing both private and public ventures—roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals, bridges, etc. For example, the foundation of Princeton and Columbia Universities was financed by a lottery in 1740. In addition, lotteries raised money for the war against the French and Indians.

While the prize for winning a lottery is determined by chance, there are some elements that every lottery must have in order to function. First and foremost, there must be a way to collect and pool all of the stakes placed—the amount paid for each ticket. This is often accomplished by having a hierarchy of agents who pass the money paid for each ticket up to an organization until it is “banked.”

In addition, there must be a set of rules that determine how frequently and how large the prizes are. A percentage of the pool is normally set aside for expenses and profits, leaving a smaller sum to be awarded to winners. Moreover, the balance must be struck between few large prizes and many smaller ones. Potential bettors seem to prefer the greater probability of winning a larger prize—as is evidenced by ticket sales that surge for rollover drawings—but they must be willing to wager more on the smaller prizes in order to do so.