The official lottery is the procedure for distributing money or prizes among a group of people by chance. The prize money or the number of tickets to be sold (or both) must be fixed beforehand, and a percentage usually goes to the organizer or sponsor as costs and profits. The remainder is available for winners. A bettor places a bet with a lottery organization by writing his name or other symbol on a ticket and leaving it with the organization for shuffling and selection in the drawing.

The lottery was invented to allow states to finance public projects without imposing onerous taxes on the middle and working classes. It was a way of raising money for the kinds of public works that states had always built and operated, including roads, canals, bridges, libraries, schools, churches, and universities. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, many colonies used lotteries to raise money for their armies and fortifications.

But there is another side to the story, and that is this: governments are promoting gambling, which is not just inconvenient, but dangerous, especially when it comes with such high odds of winning so little. And it is a question whether government should be in the business of encouraging this vice, especially when it only raises a tiny fraction of state budgets.