A lottery in the sense of a  gamble for pleasure is basically a distribution of prizes to winning bettors who are decided by the drawing of numbered slips from a container; the prizes, of course, go to the people holding duplicates of slips drawn.  A ticket-holder’s bet is the money he pays for his ticket.  All the tickets not actually drawn from the container are worthless (i.e., “blanks”) and a ticket–holder’s chances are decided by (a) the total number of tickets in the container; (b) the number of prizes; and (c) the number of tickets he has bought.  In a true lottery (as opposed to a “pool” or a “sweepstake”), there are specified prizes that remain the same irrespective of the number of people who buy tickets.  In pools or sweepstakes, however, winners share all the money in the pool (i.e., the stakes), which varies according to the number of tickets sold.  (of course, running expenses are deducted first, and a certain prearranged percentage may go to a cause for which the lottery was held.)

All lotteries are basically simple, though the means of administering them may be enormously complex, as in the case of the Irish Sweepstakes (of which more later).  The simple principle of the lottery has a great variety of manifestations, including sports pools, bingo, government bonds, raffles run by private and usually charitable organizations, keno ( a variations of bingo), and various forms of the card game (based on some arbitrary figure such as a stock-exchange daily balance).  But none of these requires more effort on the gambler’s part than simply buying a ticket, or going through a simple routine like watching a numbered card (as in bingo) or filling in a coupon (as in the various kinds of sports pools).

A Parisienne, selling tickets for the French National Lottery, invites passers-by to try to win a fortune in the next day’s draw.  Such booths can be seen in any busy French street.  The prospect of winning a huge sum with a small stake leads millions of people to gamble regularly on lotteries.

A lottery can be complicated slightly by being linked with some other event- such as some kind of race.  A number tickets are drawn equal to the number of entrants in the race (all other tickets are then blanks); and the ultimate winner out of these few is decided by the entrant who wins the race.  Additional prizes diminishing in value are usually awarded to those who have drawn the second, third, and fourth entrants, and consolation prizes are sometimes awarded to all who have drawn entrants, and consolation prizes are sometimes awarded to all who have drawn entrants.  This is the basic principle by which winners of the Irish Sweepstakes are chosen.

Public lotteries have been popular in Europe from the 16th century onward-popular with the people as an enjoyable gamble, and with the organizers as a nearly foolproof way to raise money.  A 19th century engraving shows a French state-run lottery being drawn.  Two armed guards keep order; a blindfolded man draws the winning numbers from a barrel and the numbers are then put on a board on the wall for all to see.

Lotteries involving the placing of stakes (as distinct from acts of sortilege to make important decisions) are not very old.  Romans had a form of lottery that had no blanks and required no stakes, but this was virtually a distribution of free gifts given by rich emperors and aristocrats during the Saturnalian feasts.  The first recorded lottery to involve the buying of tickets and the distribution of prize money was held in Bruges on February 24, 1466.  It was organized by the widow of the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck in order to raise money for the poor of the town.

Europe’s next lottery didn’t appear until 1520, when King Francis I of France signed a bill that legalized lotteries blanques and authorized the setting up of five wheels (what is, containers of tickets for the draw ) in Paris, Lyons, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, and Lille.  In Genoa and Venice, also in the 16th century, merchants began to organize public lotteries whenever they had some especially valuable produce to dispose of; in this way their profit would always exceed the sum that they would normally have got from an individual.

An 18th century German & french engraving depicting a public lottery in Nuremberg. Orphan children draw the winning tickets from a barrel; the names of the winners would then be called and cash prizes awarded by public officials.