What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a game in which tokens are distributed or sold, and the winners are secretly predetermined or ultimately selected by drawing. Modern lotteries include games in which people purchase chances to win prizes ranging from units in a subsidized housing complex to kindergarten placements at a public school. There are also lotteries that award sports draft picks to paying participants.

The practice of distributing goods or property by lot dates to ancient times. Moses is commanded in the Old Testament to give away land by lottery, and Roman emperors gave away slaves, products, and even properties during Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries became widely used in the early American colonies to raise funds for public projects, and by the Revolutionary War were a major source of voluntary taxes.

Many lottery systems require the participation of a large number of people, making it impossible for any one person to influence the outcome. To avoid such a situation, the lottery must be structured so that the prizes are allocated by chance. A lottery must also provide a means of recording purchases, ticket sales, and winnings, and it must be possible to transport tickets and stakes.

The word lottery derives from Middle Dutch loterie, a calque of the Middle French loterie “action of drawing lots.” The first state-sponsored lottery was held in the Netherlands in the 15th century. In the United States, lotteries are legalized by state law and overseen by federal agencies. In addition to generating revenue for government services, they also promote gambling.