A lottery is a game in which people pay for a ticket, choose a group of numbers, or have machines randomly spit out pieces of paper with symbols. If enough of these match the winning combination, a prize is awarded. The practice dates back to ancient times: the Old Testament instructs Moses to distribute land by lot; and the Romans used lottery-style games as dinner entertainments. In the 17th century, public lotteries became common in the Low Countries for a variety of purposes, including collecting money to help poor people and to finance town fortifications and other municipal uses. They were hailed as a painless substitute for taxes.
The modern state lottery evolved from these earlier practices, and is typically a monopoly run by a state agency or corporation (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of the profits). Lotteries begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; then, due to pressure for additional revenues, progressively expand in size and complexity, especially by adding new games. The super-sized jackpots that draw attention to the games have a particular effect: they entice many players with apparently newsworthy prizes, but they also earn the games a windfall of free publicity on television and internet sites, increasing sales and public interest.
Some people play the lottery because they plain like to gamble. Others do so to eke out a marginal, but sustainable, source of income. Others have irrational gambling habits and think the odds are long, but nevertheless believe they can win. Still others have a more profound reason to gamble: they see the lottery as a way of getting rid of taxes altogether.