A game of chance in which tokens are distributed or sold, with the winning token(s) selected by lot: often sponsored by a state or organization as a means of raising funds. The name derives from the Middle Dutch word loterie, “action of drawing lots” (from lot, meaning fate).
Several things make lottery games attractive to people. First of all, the odds are very low. For a person to win the New York lotto, for example, he or she must guess six numbers between one and fifty-nine; the North Carolina lotto requires five numbers between one and forty-three. Second, the game is relatively cheap to operate. All that is needed is some way of recording the identities and amounts staked by bettors. This can take the form of a ticket or receipt that is deposited with the lottery organization for later shuffling and possible selection in the drawing, or a computerized system that records the identity of each bet and, if necessary, determines whether a particular number or symbol has appeared before.
Another element is the sense that participation is a kind of civic duty. The lottery grew popular in the nineteen-sixties, when rising inflation and the costs of the Vietnam War combined to put states’ budgets into crisis. Many states provided generous social safety nets, but balancing the budget became increasingly difficult without either raising taxes or cutting services, both options unpopular with voters. Lottery profits, on the other hand, offered a modest source of revenue that could be used for everything from education to crime control.
Lottery organizers have to take care not to alienate the public, and that means giving out a respectable amount of prize money. This reduces the percentage of the pool available to winners, and some is also used for the costs of organizing and promoting the lottery. It is therefore a de facto tax on consumers, but one they rarely think of as such because it doesn’t come with a label saying, “This is your state’s money that you are spending.”
In the story, Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves arrange for a lottery in their village. Each family gets a set of tickets, with the names written on them. The tickets are then folded and placed in a wooden box. The man of each household then picks out a slip of paper that will eventually become the death sentence for one member of the family.
While lottery organizers have rules against rigging the results, it is nevertheless easy to see how people try to do so. People talk about lucky numbers, and they look for lucky stores or times of day to buy their tickets. And they also have all sorts of quotes-unquote systems for selecting their numbers, based on irrational gambling behavior and no real evidence whatsoever. Even when they lose, however, the feeling that they did their civic duty lingers. It’s a powerful force that keeps people coming back to play again and again, hoping against hope to find the magic bullet.