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How Does a Lottery Work?

The word lottery conjures up images of a game where players purchase tickets, either choosing numbers or having machines randomly spit them out, and win prizes if enough of their ticket matches those that are drawn. This game is actually much more common than it sounds, and it’s not just for the rich—in 2006, state-sponsored lotteries took in $17.1 billion. The state governments that operate these gambling games allocate their profits in a variety of ways, but a significant portion is given to education.

A key requirement for a lottery is a means of recording the identities and amounts staked by each bettor. This can be as simple as a bettor writing his name on a receipt that is then deposited with the lottery organization for shuffling and selection in the drawing, or as complicated as a computerized system that records each application row and column, and assigns a color to each cell of the plot to indicate how many times the application has been awarded its position. The fact that the colors match suggests the lottery is unbiased, and that the pool of prize money is proportionally distributed among the different application rows.

Lotteries are a popular source of charitable funding and have been used to pay for everything from church buildings to military campaigns. Even conservative Protestants such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin supported them, and they were widely seen as a painless alternative to taxes.