Books: The Lottery Wars

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

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


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.”

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest