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The lottery may seem a peculiarly American phenomenon, but it actually has roots that extend to the very beginning of our country’s history. Its early popularity stemmed from both the desire to get rich quickly and a sense of moral imperative. Lottery proceeds helped subsidize schools, build roads and canals, and fight slavery.

Its current-day popularity owes in large part to the fact that it’s easier than ever to participate. “Lotteries are the most widespread form of gambling in the world,” says Matheson, noting that there are now dozens of state-sponsored lotteries, including Powerball and Mega Millions. States can also band together to create multi-state games.

While winning the lottery can be a life-changing event, it’s also a source of envy, and schadenfreude, resulting in a cottage industry of horror stories about cursed winners. It’s also a source of financial vulnerability: While the odds are slim, lottery winners still have to pay taxes.

As of this writing, 44 states and the District of Columbia run lotteries. The six that don’t — Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada, home to Las Vegas gambling heaven — have varying reasons for their absence: Utah’s is motivated by religious concerns; Alaska’s, by a lack of fiscal urgency; and Mississippi, by a desire not to compete with its neighbors.

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