Lottery is a form of gambling where prizes are assigned to paying participants by chance. In the US, it accounts for billions of dollars in revenues annually. It is a major source of funds for state governments and for some private projects, too. It also is a popular activity among professional athletes. In the NBA, for instance, the teams’ draft picks are determined through a lottery in which names of all 14 teams are drawn.

The practice of determining fates and distributing property by lot has a long history. Moses, for example, was instructed to divide the land of Israel by lot; and ancient Roman emperors threw lots for slaves and other valuable items. The first public lotteries to sell tickets with money as prizes appear in the Low Countries around the 15th century; records from Bruges, Ghent and other towns suggest that they were used to raise funds for town fortifications or to help poor people.

Despite a slew of abuses, including the use of human beings as prizes, lotteries had widespread appeal. They were embraced by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped what would become their essence: that most people “would prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a large chance of winning little.” They were widely used in the American colonies, raising funds for everything from supplying a battery of cannons for Philadelphia’s defense to rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston to financing the building of Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, King’s College (now Columbia) and other elite institutions.

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