Lottery is a form of gambling that involves the drawing of numbers for a prize. It is an example of choice under uncertainty, and is a central topic in expected utility theory. The word lottery is also used to describe other arrangements for allocating goods, such as the allocation of seats in a school, the distribution of medical research grants, or the selection of jury members. This use of the word differs from the statistical treatment of probability as a measure, and the term is not to be confused with “probability”.

Unlike traditional games of chance, in which winnings are determined by paying a consideration (money or work), a lottery requires no payment for the right to participate; the outcome of each drawing depends entirely on chance. The concept of a lottery has long been controversial, and many governments have banned it or restricted its operations. The legality of lotteries is subject to a variety of political and social factors, and the definition of what constitutes a lottery varies from country to country. Some jurisdictions permit only small prizes, while others permit large sums of money. Some laws also restrict the types of goods or services that may be offered, and prohibit activities such as smoking or consuming alcohol.

The lottery originated in ancient times, and its use as a means of determining fates and distributing property is documented throughout history. The Old Testament instructed Moses to conduct a census of Israel and divide the land by lot, and Roman emperors distributed slaves through a lottery system. The first modern public lotteries began to emerge in the fourteenth century in the Low Countries, where they were often used as a substitute for taxation, and eventually spread throughout Europe.

Colonial America also held a series of public lotteries, and their popularity increased during the Revolutionary War, when the Continental Congress used them to raise money for the military effort. The lotteries also helped finance private and public ventures, including the foundation of Columbia and Princeton universities, as well as roads, canals, libraries, churches, and colleges.

In the nineteenth century, the development of state-sponsored lotteries challenged long-held ethical objections to gambling. Its proponents argued that people were going to gamble anyway, so the government might as well collect the profits. It was an argument with limited validity, but it gave a veneer of moral legitimacy to the sale of gambling tickets.

Today, the lottery is a popular source of recreational and charitable gambling. Its jackpots have grown to enormous proportions, and it is not uncommon for them to become the focus of news stories and TV shows. Despite the publicity, the lottery remains a form of gambling, and is not without its downsides. The wealthy buy fewer tickets than the poor, and the amounts they spend on them make up a smaller percentage of their incomes. The wealthy also tend to avoid high-stakes games, such as keno, where the odds of winning are very low.