The History of the Lottery

The casting of lots has a long record, from deciding who gets a prize in a party game during Roman Saturnalia to divining Jesus’s fate after his Crucifixion. Yet lotteries aren’t quite as ancient as that. They’ve been around for at least three hundred years, and state governments now organize them to raise billions of dollars a year.

Cohen argues that the modern lottery, which traces its roots to New Hampshire in 1964, emerged when a growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with an emergency in state finances. Faced with a rapidly increasing population, inflation, and the costs of a war, many states could no longer balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Introducing lotteries was an appealing alternative, he writes.

While he doesn’t dwell on it, the underlying implication of his argument is that government-sponsored lotteries are designed to be addictive, just like cigarettes and video games. From the layout of scratch-off tickets to the mathematics of their odds, everything about them is calculated to keep people coming back for more.

Those who play the lottery do so for any number of reasons, from instant spending sprees to paying off student loans and mortgages. But what most of us really want to do is win. And we can do that, if we know the right strategy. A little research can teach you how to improve your chances of winning by understanding the odds of each lottery game and by finding out which numbers are more frequently drawn — or less often.