Books: The Lottery Wars

Long odds, fast money, and the battle over an American institution.

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


Americans buy more than $57 billion worth of lottery tickets a year. That works out to $500 a household—more than is spent on movies, music, and books combined. While it’s no secret that lotteries have a dark side, the fact that so much scandal is consolidated into fewer and fewer companies is less well known. In The Lottery Wars, Matthew Sweeney compellingly maps the seedy history of this American pastime.

Lotteries were used to outfit George Washington’s army, and they paved the way for modern insurance. (Ticket buyers began placing side bets to protect against losses.) But even in the early days, hucksters figured out how to rig the games. In the 1830s, P.T. Barnum made a bundle on lotteries by handing out worthless items, like pieces of tape, as prizes. Corruption still abounds: Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich tried to bring keno to the state, only to shelve the plan when it came out that a former aide was a keno lobbyist. And gtech, the $4.7 billion company that runs 70 percent of the world’s online lottery games, is famously sleazy. Writes Sweeney, “There may be no other company with so many government contacts that has such an extensive rap sheet of indictments, convictions, and accusations of fraud and abuse.”

Despite its shadiness, the lottery continues to thrive; slogans such as Oregon’s “There’s no such thing as a losing ticket” encourage us to keep trying our luck. As Alexander Hamilton wrote approvingly in 1793, “Everybody, almost, can and will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of considerable gain.”

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.