What You Need to Know About the Lottery


Whether you’re buying your state’s weekly lottery ticket or trying to win the big jackpot in Powerball or Mega Millions, there are a few things you need to know. First, there’s a lot of money at stake, and secondly, the chances of winning are pretty slim—there are more chances of being struck by lightning or becoming a billionaire than getting your hands on the lottery’s prize. Then, there’s the matter of being addicted to lottery, which can take a toll on people’s lives and even their families.

The word “lottery” comes from the Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate,” and the Old English noun lothrie, which meant “to throw (a coin) by chance.” The latter was a method of determining property rights in land by drawing lots. By the 16th century, the lottery had spread from Flanders to England and was regulated by state legislatures. Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia run a lottery. The six states that don’t—Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah and Nevada—do so for different reasons: Mississippi and Nevada allow gambling and don’t want a competing lottery to eat into their profits; Alabama, Alaska and Hawaii have religious concerns; and Utah doesn’t have the fiscal urgency that would push it to adopt a lottery.

Most lottery games involve a fixed-prize game with a random selection of winners, though some also include other elements such as a purchase requirement or a minimum bet amount. The most common way to buy tickets is through a retail agent, which is usually a business that sells goods or services and receives commissions from the lottery. Other options include online lottery sales and phone-based purchases, where customers buy tickets with their credit card and receive a barcode that they scan at the lottery booth.

In order to attract players, many lottery organizations team up with sports franchises or other companies for merchandising deals. This enables them to offer popular products as prizes, such as Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and gives the company a promotional boost in return. Some of the more traditional prizes have been land or buildings, and in fact, some of America’s most prestigious universities owe their founding to lottery funds.

Despite their long odds, lottery winnings can add up quickly. But there’s a downside to the large sums of money involved: A 2017 Gallup poll found that lower-income Americans were less likely to say they bought state lottery tickets than their wealthier counterparts. And while winning the lottery isn’t a surefire route to prosperity, it can be a good way to pay for a child’s education or help an elderly family member. In fact, a couple in their 60s made $27 million over nine years playing the Michigan Lottery using a strategy that involved bulk-buying thousands of tickets at a time and traveling to Massachusetts to play the same numbers as other groups of MIT students who had figured out the same thing. This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been republished with permission.