A lottery is a procedure for distributing something (usually money or prizes) among a number of people by lot, usually through payment of a consideration. Modern lotteries are generally governed by state governments. Some are conducted by the government to benefit the public, while others are purely commercial promotions or games of chance. In the strict definition of a gambling type of lottery, payments must be made in exchange for a chance at winning a prize. However, other types of lotteries exist, including those for units in a subsidized housing complex or kindergarten placements at a public school.
In the United States, state-run lotteries are the most common. Many are based on numbers or symbols, and prizes can range from a few dollars to a large jackpot. Other types of lotteries are played privately, including in business organizations and social groups. A large group of people can pool their resources to purchase more tickets, increasing their chances of winning. In addition, some people try to improve their odds of winning by picking more frequent or unusual numbers.
The term lottery derives from the Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate.” Some of the first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise money for poor relief and town fortifications. Public lotteries became widespread in England and the United States in the 19th century, and they were viewed as painless forms of taxation. In the United States, state-sponsored lotteries raised funds for colleges such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and Union, and also helped finance the American Revolution.