A distribution of prizes by lot or chance, especially a gaming scheme in which tickets bearing particular numbers draw prizes. The casting of lots for the disposal of property, slaves, or military conscription has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. Public lotteries to give away money or merchandise began in the early modern era, and private lottery schemes flourished throughout the colonial period, raising funds for colleges such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and King’s College (now Columbia) and for other purposes, such as paying off debts. The Continental Congress established a lottery in 1776 to raise funds for the American Revolution, and the practice became popular in state governments afterward.
Unlike other forms of gambling, lottery play has a positive connotation: The winnings are supposed to be used for good causes. This positive message has become the primary argument that lottery games are a legitimate form of public finance. State officials, however, have little control over how lottery revenues are spent. Lottery policy is often made piecemeal, with authority shifted among the legislative and executive branches and even within each branch. This fragmentation makes it difficult for lottery officials to develop a coherent state gambling or lottery policy.
For the average lottery player, the odds of winning are slim to none. But even for the lucky few, there are plenty of cautionary tales about how the sudden acquisition of a massive windfall can wreak havoc on families and careers. One big thing to keep in mind, experts say, is to stay quiet about your victory until you’ve surrounded yourself with a crack team of lawyers and financial advisers.