What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game in which tickets are sold for a small amount of money and prizes are awarded to the winners who correctly pick the most numbers. This is a form of gambling, and it can be addictive. It can also ruin people’s lives, but it is important to remember that people are able to choose whether or not to play the lottery.

The first known lotteries to offer tickets were held by the Roman Empire, as a common dinner entertainment where the host would distribute pieces of wood with symbols and then draw for prizes during the Saturnalian revelries. However, these weren’t public lotteries that offered tickets for sale and the winners could take home cash or other items of unequal value.

Public lotteries became increasingly popular in the United States in the late eighteenth century. The Continental Congress voted to hold a lottery to help finance the Revolution, and Alexander Hamilton argued that lotteries were acceptable because they were a form of “voluntary taxation.” By the early nineteenth century, public lotteries raised enough money to establish Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and many other American colleges.

A lottery is a fair way to allocate prizes, especially when those prizes are in high demand. Examples include kindergarten admission at a good school, a lottery to fill subsidized housing units, or a lottery to get a vaccine for a rapidly moving infectious disease. The rationality of playing a lottery is determined by the combined expected utility of monetary and non-monetary benefits.