Official lottery, also known as state lotteries, are government-sponsored gambling games that raise money to fund public services. They are the most common source of public-sector funding in the US, but they have also generated a great deal of controversy. Among the more serious concerns are questions about the ethics of using gambling as a source of revenue and the amount of money states stand to gain. Opponents have come from all walks of life, but the most vociferous have been devout Protestants, who view state-sanctioned lotteries as morally unconscionable.

In his new book, Cohen charts the rise of modern lottery games in America. His narrative begins in the nineteen-sixties, when a growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. Thanks to a swelling population and the rising cost of the Vietnam War, many state governments found it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

With an eye toward securing public support, lottery commissioners began courting low-income communities by selling tickets in places where people might already be spending their money. In addition, they began offering ever-larger jackpots, which would generate plenty of free publicity on news sites and television shows. Super-sized jackpots not only drive ticket sales, but they also encourage the hope that a lucky ticketholder will become the next big winner. In a way, the strategies used by the lottery industry are not so different from those employed by tobacco companies or video-game makers.