The Odds Are Against the Lottery

The people in Jackson’s short story “Lottery” know the odds are long. They know that winning is unlikely and they are willing to accept that fact. Yet, they still buy tickets. They buy them in bulk, thousands at a time. They have all sorts of quote-unquote systems for winning, about lucky numbers and stores and times of day and what types of tickets to buy. They have all the irrational gambling behavior that one would expect from a group of people who realize they are playing the lottery for nothing more than a chance at a new life, if only for a little while.

Lottery is an ancient pastime, a game that dates back as far as the biblical Old Testament (lotto games were even popular with Roman Emperors, according to reports) and as far as Europe in the fifteenth century when towns used lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and charity for the poor. Lotteries spread to America, despite Protestant prohibitions against gambling, after British colonists brought the practice to the United States from England.

In modern America, a state-sponsored lottery has grown to be a major business. In some states, more than 70 percent of the money is generated by the top 10 to 20 percent of players, who have been buying tickets for years. That’s a lot of money from a tiny base of people. State lawmakers are beginning to understand that lottery profits are a finite resource and are exploring ways to limit new modes of play, like online games and credit card ticket purchases.

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