The Truth About Winning the Lottery

Lottery is a game based on the principles of probability theory and combinatorial mathematics. It requires players to guess a certain quantity of numbers from a range, for example six out of fifty in the New York lottery, or five out of thirty-three in the North Carolina lottery. The odds of getting all six numbers right are absurdly low—which is precisely why winning the lottery is so tempting.

The first recorded lotteries to offer tickets for prizes ranging from money to goods appeared in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, where public lotteries were used to raise funds for town fortifications and charity. In those days, a ticket could cost ten shillings, and the chance of winning would be much higher than that of winning a modern jackpot.

But the idea was still relatively novel, and the lottery quickly spread from Europe into America, where it helped finance the colonial settlement of the continent, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. In fact, the early American lotteries were tangled up in the slave trade in ways that might surprise historians. George Washington managed a Virginia-based lottery whose prizes included human beings, and a formerly enslaved man named Denmark Vesey won the South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

Today, the lottery remains a popular source of entertainment and is a major contributor to state and national budgets. But its message has been muddied by marketing that emphasizes the fun of scratching a ticket, while overlooking its regressive nature. And even for those who do win, the reality is that a large chunk of their winnings will be paid in taxes—and most winners go broke within a couple years.