In a lottery, tickets are sold for the chance to win money or goods. Ticket buyers may be able to pick their own numbers or choose from a set of predetermined combinations. The most common lottery games are scratch-offs and pull-tabs, the latter having numbers on the back that are hidden behind a perforated paper tab that must be pulled to see them.
Lotteries date back to ancient times–Nero was a fan, and the casting of lots appears in the Bible for everything from deciding who gets Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion to dividing property among the Jews. They were also a popular form of entertainment during Roman Saturnalia festivities, and the first recorded lotteries in Europe raised funds for town fortifications and to help poor people.
State-run lotteries grew in popularity in the United States during the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, as many governments searched for ways to fill their budgets that would not anger an antitax electorate. The jackpots on these games can get enormously large, and the resulting media buzz bolsters sales.
Yet even when the prize is huge, it’s rare for a person to actually hit the jackpot. Instead, most players are merely buying the ghost of a chance, the whiff of “maybe”–and the ability to dream of what they might do with all that money if they did win. Americans spend about $80 billion on these fantasies every year, or more than half of what many families make in a single year.