What is a Lottery?

Lottery is the game in which people pay money to enter a competition that depends on chance for its prizes. It can encompass a variety of arrangements, from a competition for apartments in a subsidized housing block to kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. If it involves paying to enter and winning a prize, it’s probably a lottery—even if, as in the case of a certain Michigan couple, later stages of the arrangement require some degree of skill.

A number of things make the lottery a distinctive form of gambling, but most important is its enormous jackpots. Big prizes draw in more players and give the games free publicity on news sites and newscasts. They also create a tangle of social issues that the industry struggles to manage. For example, early American lotteries were often tangled up with the slave trade; George Washington managed a Virginia lottery that offered human beings as prizes, and one enslaved person, Denmark Vesey, bought his freedom with a winning ticket.

Although the history of lotteries is diverse, state-run games have followed similar patterns: legislators legalize a state monopoly; designate an agency or public corporation to run the games (rather than licensing a private firm in exchange for a share of the profits); start with a modest set of relatively simple games; and, as they seek to increase revenue, gradually expand the range of available games. State lottery commissions are not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction; everything from their advertising campaigns to the math behind their games is designed to keep people coming back for more.