Is Playing the Lottery Gambling?

The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights dates back centuries, and in the seventeenth century lotteries became popular in England and America as a way to raise money for townships, wars, colleges, canals, bridges, and public works projects. While some people argue that the lottery is a form of gambling, others say that it is not because winners are chosen at random. However, if the odds of winning are bad enough, then the lottery can be considered gambling.

In the 1740s, lotteries played a major role in financing private and public ventures in colonial America. Roads, libraries, churches, and the foundation of Princeton and Columbia Universities were all funded by lotteries, and during the French and Indian Wars several colonies used them to raise funds for fortifications.

But the truth is that winning the lottery is a long shot — no matter how many times you buy a ticket, your chances of winning are about one in 100 million. Nonetheless, many people play the lottery anyway. Some are frequent players who spend $50 or $100 a week on tickets. Others play a few times a month or less. The most common demographic for frequent players is high-school educated middle-aged men in the middle of the economic spectrum.

But even though the chance of winning is low, some people think that it’s worth playing for entertainment value and other non-monetary benefits. This is not unreasonable given the low cost of a ticket and the fact that the disutility of a loss is outweighed by the expected utility of monetary gain.