The Official Lottery

Historically, the official lottery was frowned upon by idealists during the French Revolution who viewed it as a method for exploiting the poor. In the nineteenth century, philosophers like Voltaire and bishops complained that lotteries were amoral. But a growing awareness of the money to be made in the lottery business collided with a crisis in state funding.

By the nineteen-sixties, with a burgeoning population and inflation, state governments had a hard time balancing their budgets, and raising taxes or cutting services was extremely unpopular with voters. State legislatures saw the lottery as a way to maintain vital social services and other government functions without hiking taxes, and lotteries became a popular source of state revenue.

Today, US lotteries are almost exclusively state-run and offer three-digit games akin to numbers games; four-digit games with a single letter (often associated with sports teams); and six-digit games that require players to choose all of the winning numbers. Many states also sell scratch-off tickets and video lottery terminals. In addition, they typically have a top prize of at least $50 million and often feature secondary prizes of lesser amounts.

While people in other countries rarely develop elaborate schemes to game the lottery, a few hundred “professional” players can be found across the US. They use everything from historical patterns to esoteric mathematical loopholes—such as purchasing tickets en masse during a rolldown, when no one wins the top prize and the money flows down to the next tier—to increase their odds of winning.