Lottery is a government-sponsored game in which numbered tickets are sold for a chance to win a prize, normally money. It is the most widespread of all gambling games. Lotteries date back to ancient times. For example, keno slips from the Han dynasty of 205–187 BC are known to have been used for raising funds to construct towns and build the Great Wall of China.

In the seventeenth century, lotteries were common in the Low Countries, which relied on them to fund town fortifications and charitable projects. In England, Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first state lottery in 1567, directing profits to “reparation of the Havens and the Strength of the Realme.” Ticket prices were ten shillings, which was an extraordinary sum at that time. The word “lottery” is probably a calque on Middle Dutch lotterie, and may have come to mean the action of drawing lots.

Lotteries became popular in the United States in the nineteen-seventies, as a recession and then a long period of rising income inequality narrowed the gap between rich and poor, and health-care and pension costs rose. People were looking for a way to become wealthy without spending much of their own hard-earned income. The dream of a multimillion-dollar jackpot made winning the lottery seem a possible solution to life’s troubles. As a result, the number of people buying tickets rose dramatically. It’s not as if they are all winning, of course; most players don’t. But their purchases, combined with those of other buyers, contribute to the prizes available to a few lucky winners. And a percentage of the total pool of money contributed by bettors goes toward costs of organizing and promoting the lottery, as well as taxes and profits for the state or sponsor.