The official lottery is a system of distribution of money or prizes among a group of people by lot. The word “lottery” is also used for games in which people try to guess a series of numbers or symbols, usually on paper tickets, in order to win a prize. The most common types of lotteries include a single-digit game, in which the winning number is drawn from a large pool of numbers; a multiple-digit game, in which the winning prize is split among several different winners; and a combination of these two games. Many governments, especially in the United States, have state-run lotteries.

Lotteries have a long and varied history in the United States. They’re wildly popular now, with Americans spending an estimated $100 billion on tickets each year, but that wasn’t always the case. As state lotteries began to proliferate in the twentieth century, they faced a variety of challenges, from moral and religious objections to questions about how much money they really raised for state coffers.

For one thing, there’s the simple fact that people love to gamble. As the New York Times’ Daniel D’Antoni points out, there’s just an inextricable human urge to take a chance and hope for the best. But there’s a lot more going on, and it has to do with state budgets, taxes, and social mobility. As D’Anton writes, lotteries essentially sell a kind of meritocratic fantasy that anyone can become rich if they buy a ticket—even though the odds of winning are stacked against them.