Lottery: Overview, History, Advantages and Disadvantages

What Is a Lottery?

A lottery is a low-odds game of chance or a process in which winners are selected by a random drawing. Lotteries can be used in decision-making situations, such as sports team drafts and the allocation of scarce medical treatment.

Lotteries are also a popular form of gambling, encouraging people to pay a small sum of money for the chance of winning a big jackpot, often administered by state or federal governments.

Key Takeaways

  • A lottery is a game of chance or a process in which winners are selected at random.
  • Lotteries can be used in sports team drafts, the allocation of scarce medical treatment, and other decision-making situations.
  • Some of the more popular lotteries are financial, with participants betting a small sum of money for the chance of winning a big jackpot.
  • While financial lotteries have been criticized as an addictive form of gambling, sometimes the money raised is used for good causes in the public sector.

Understanding Lotteries

A lottery refers to a random draw, which results in a winner or small group of winners. When there is a high demand for something that is limited, a lottery may be run to make a process fair for everyone.

Some examples include a lottery for units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. Two common, popular examples are those that occur in sports and those that dish out big cash prizes to paying participants.


In the world of sports, the National Basketball Association (NBA) holds a lottery for the 14 teams with the worst record from the previous season that did not make the playoffs. The names of all 14 teams are randomly drawn in order to determine which draft pick they will have. The team that comes out on top is essentially given the first opportunity to pick the biggest talent out of college.


A financial lottery is a game where players pay for a ticket, usually for $1, select a group of numbers, or have machines randomly spit them out, and then win prizes if enough of their numbers match those randomly drawn by a machine.

The lucky winner is often presented with the choice of taking a lump-sum payment or annual installments. The former option is usually the most popular, although sometimes receiving the proceeds over several years via an annuity can make more sense, especially for taxation purposes—in most states, lottery wins are subject to income tax.

The largest jackpot in U.S. history was $2.04 billion, with one ticket in California on Nov. 8, 2022.

The total value of prizes is generally determined by the amount raised after the promoter takes out their expenses. That said, there are also some lotteries that offer predetermined prizes, meaning the promoter's ability to cover expenses and generate a profit depends on how many tickets have been sold.

If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, call the National Council on Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-522-4700, or visit to chat with a helpline specialist.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Lottery

A cash lottery generates loads of excitement and dreams of throwing off the yoke of "working for the man" for thousands, if not millions of people, depending on the size of the lottery prize.

Lotteries have been criticized in the past for being an addictive form of gambling. Though tickets are not usually expensive, costs can rack up over the years, and the chances of winning are very slim — statistically, there is a greater likelihood of being struck by lightning or becoming a billionaire than winning the Mega Millions jackpot.

Moreover, those lucky enough to acquire the vast sums of money on offer can sometimes find themselves worse off than before. There have been several cases where winning the lottery has triggered a serious decline in the quality of life of individuals and families.

On a more positive note, proceeds from lottery ticket sales do sometimes go to good causes. Each state tends to donate a percentage of revenue generated. Often money raised will be spent in the public sector on things like education, park services, and funds for veterans and seniors.

Lotteries are a good way to raise money as they are simple to organize and popular with the general public.

The History of Lotteries

The origins of lotteries can be traced back centuries ago. In the Old Testament, Moses was instructed to take a census of the people of Israel and then divide the land among them. Meanwhile, Roman emperors reportedly used lotteries to give away property and slaves.

Lotteries were later brought to the United States by British colonists. The initial reaction was mainly negative, particularly among Christians, with ten states banning them between 1844 to 1859. Most states had banned them by 1860, with only Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky still allowing them on a state level.

What Should You Do First If You Win the Lottery?

First, you need to establish proof that it's your ticket, then hire a financial team to support you — including a financial advisor and planner, a lawyer for estate planning, and a CPA to help with taxes. Experts suggest that you do this before claiming the money. If possible, stay anonymous, and don't start spending or handing out money too quickly.

How Are Lottery Winnings Taxed?

Lottery winnings are treated as ordinary income by both the IRS and most states. On a state level, that excludes those that don't have income tax or that don't tax state lottery winnings. The amount that is owed is determined by the amount the winner won, where they live, and whether the winnings were taken as a lump sum or as an annuity.

Which States Don't Charge Income Tax on Lottery Winnings?

As of 2023, eight states do not charge tax if you win the lottery. The states are California,?Florida, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wyoming.

The Bottom Line

A lottery is a game of chance in which winners are selected randomly. Participants might purchase or receive admission and?a chance to win a prize or money. Lotteries are also used as a means of determining who gets a limited resource that many would like, such as housing in a particular area or access to a certain school. Lotteries have been around for centuries. The hoopla around lotteries can be exciting and the money or prizes received can be life-changing for the scant few who beat the odds and win. However, lotteries have been criticized as being a form of gambling.

Article Sources
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  1. National Basketball Association. "NBA Draft Lottery: Odds, History and How It Works."

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Topic No. 410, Pensions and Annuities."

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Topic No. 419, Gambling Income and Losses."

  4. Tax Foundation. "What Are the Chances Your State Withholds Much of Your Lottery Winnings?"

  5. The New York Times. "Here Are the 10 Biggest U.S. Lottery Jackpots Ever."

  6. National Council on Problem Gambling. "Help & Treatment: National Problem Gambling Helpline."

  7. American Psychiatric Association. "What Is Gambling Disorder?"

  8. North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries. "Where the Money Goes."

  9. California State Lottery. "Gambling In California — History of Gambling in the United States," Archived.

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