Lottery is a type of gambling in which prizes are randomly awarded. A prize may be a single item, such as an automobile, a vacation, or a house; a group of items, such as a refrigerator, freezer, or washing machine; or even cash. The prize money is usually a multiple of the ticket price, and tickets are sold in a variety of ways. Some state governments run their own lottery, while others rely on private promoters to administer and market the games. Regardless of the specifics of the game, all lotteries share some key characteristics:

In a typical lottery, the organizer sets a prize pool; draws a random number or symbol from among those submitted by ticket purchasers; and then divides the total value of the prize into smaller and larger prizes. The bigger the prize, the more tickets are sold; the smaller the prize, the fewer tickets are sold. The total number of entries is typically kept secret from the public, and in some states the total prize amount is capped or a winner-take-all arrangement is used.

Regardless of the exact mechanism, most state lotteries follow similar patterns: they establish a government-run monopoly to sell tickets; begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, in response to pressure for additional revenues, progressively expand their offerings. The popularity of lottery play is often linked to economic stress; it increases as incomes fall, unemployment rises, and poverty rates increase. Moreover, lottery promotions tend to target neighborhoods with disproportionately high numbers of poor, black, or Latino residents.

The biggest prize in any lottery is the jackpot, which draws tremendous amounts of publicity and encourages people to buy tickets. However, the odds of winning a jackpot are not linear with the size of the prize; as the prize grows, the odds of winning decline. To counteract this phenomenon, lottery officials have taken a number of measures, including lowering the maximum prize amount and increasing the frequency of top-prize drawings.

While the lottery may have lost some of its original magic, it remains popular in part because it is a way for states to raise revenue without triggering a tax revolt at the polls. As Cohen explains, in the late-twentieth century tax-averse voters were facing budget deficits and state services were under strain; lotteries offered a solution to both problems by making state money appear seemingly out of thin air.

Lottery defenders argue that people who purchase tickets understand the odds and have a reasonable expectation of winning. However, the fact is that many do not; indeed, research has shown that the majority of players are unaware of how unlikely it is to win a prize. In addition, there is a strong psychological component to lottery playing: individuals who buy tickets rationally weigh the expected disutility of a monetary loss against the combined entertainment and non-monetary benefits that they expect to receive. The result is that, for many, the lottery continues to offer the illusion of a new beginning.