Lottery is a state-sponsored gambling game in which people purchase tickets and hope to win a prize, such as money or goods. The drawing of the winning numbers is always random. Often the numbers are chosen in a transparent machine. This allows viewers to see the rubber balls being picked, and gives them confidence that the drawing is not rigged.

The lottery is a popular pastime, with players spending billions of dollars on tickets each year in the US alone. Some critics say it promotes irresponsible spending and encourages people to bet against their own best interests, while others point to its importance in raising revenue for state budgets.

But what is it about the lottery that makes it such a part of American life? And what does it tell us about the ways we think about gambling, and the nature of risk?

In this episode of the podcast, we talk to people who play the lottery—people who spend $50 or $100 a week on tickets. We find that they defy the stereotypes we might have going into these conversations: that they’re irrational, or that they don’t understand odds or risk. In fact, they’re just really good at playing the game.

People have been using lotteries to award prizes since ancient times, including a form of the game in the Old Testament and Roman emperors’ gifts of land or slaves. Benjamin Franklin held a lottery to raise money for the defense of Philadelphia, and George Washington managed one that offered land and slaves as prizes. The practice became a staple of British colonial America, and helped build Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and King’s College (now Columbia).