History Of Lottery Gaming: From Ancient Chinese Lotteries To Modern Games

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From originating in China’s Han Dynasty to the array of digital lottos we see thriving today, the lottery has a varied past and a story to tell. In this article, we explore how the lottery has evolved into the game it is today.

There are many incarnations of the lottery throughout history:

  • Lottery as we know it today
  • Lottery in the Han Dynasty
  • Lottery in Ancient Rome
  • Lottery in North America

Read on as we use these key periods to explore how fate — throughout history — has turned the lottery into a modern phenomenon widely played all over the world (and online).

Lottery as we know it today

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Lottery as we know it evolves from the Dutch term lot, meaning fate, which happens to be a fairly accurate description of how the game works.

Established in 1726, the state lottery of Holland is thought to be among the longest-running incarnations of this game. It continues to take up a familiar format — buying tickets to enter a draw based on winning numbers — much like we see across the world today.

Where the lottery has changed most during this time, however, is the creation of the internet. Now we have a digital world at our fingertips, the game is more widely accessible than ever before, and can be played anytime, anywhere.

The Powerball, for instance, is a contemporary version of the lottery that comes from America but can be played online and overseas. Thanks to the internet it doesn’t matter where you live, you can partake in popular variations of the lottery such as Powerball USA or the Euro Millions, and be in with a chance of winning a life-changing jackpot, so long as you have a ticket to hand.

Lottery in the Han Dynasty (China)

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The Dutch created the lottery as we know it today, but the Han Dynasty is where it all began.

During this period of ancient China, people played the white pigeon game — a variation of Keno that got its name from the birds that used to deliver the results of the draw. Some funds generated from this game were even used to help build part of the Great Wall of China. It’s said the Chinese Book of Songs — the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, said to date back to the seventh century — makes reference to these early lottery games. Inside, the book refers to a game of chance as the drawing of wood.

Lottery in ancient Rome

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The lottery was integrated with ancient Roman culture. It took many forms during this time and was used for an array of different purposes. For instance, for the upper classes, the lottery was a game played at dinner parties to impress their guests and exude wealth.

That said, the lottery has always been a game for the people, be it for tax or entertainment. Ancient Rome was no different. Augustus Caesar hosted a lottery where the citizens of Rome would buy tickets, much like we see today. The prizes? A portion of the treasures brought back by the army on one of their many conquests.

All roads lead to Rome, of which the paving was paid for by the lottery.

Lottery in early modern European history

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In the 1500s, the then French King, Francis I discovered lotteries during his battles across Italy. In a bid to bolster and support state finances back home, he decided to adopt the game of chance and organise a similar variation back on home soil — this game was called the Loterie Royale and was a complete disaster, opposed by the upper classes who happened to be the only ones who could afford the costly tickets.

Across the channel in England, lotteries enjoyed far more success during this time. After previously experimenting with raffles, Queen Elizabeth I was the first English monarch to establish an official lottery in 1566. Not drawn until three years later, the grand prize of £5,000 was dangled in front of a believed 400,000 participants.

This early English lottery was designed to raise funds for the crown, which later rebuilt ports and developed new ships to bolster the nation’s fleet. Although the prize for this lottery was not all hard cash, it also included valuable commodities like silver and linen. Moreover, participants were granted immunity from one arrest, so long as the crime did not include one or more of the following: piracy, murder, and treason.

Over in Spain, the first lottery was held more than a century later in 1763. Though late to the party, for the Spanish, lotteries evolved into a beloved tradition. For instance, the Spanish Christmas lottery is the second longest-running lottery on the globe, starting in 1812 into today. In fact, this lottery is nicknamed el gordo, meaning the big one — and is considered to be one of the biggest draws in the world, with prize money totalling €2.4 billion being shared with winners in just 2024 alone.

Lottery in North America

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Alongside the Dutch, Spain and France were quick to adopt the use of lotteries, but so too was North America, then a relatively new region on the global stage.

In 1655, New Amsterdam (now known as New York) organised a state lottery where the population would guess how many bibles were sold over a period of time. And George Washington sponsored a lottery to build a bridge across the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1768.

However, North America has a muddied relationship with gambling and games of fate. Citing an offence against moral sensibilities, by the mid-1800s most states had banned lotteries, though this didn’t stop underground games from cropping up. It wasn’t until 1964 did we see the re-establishment of state lotteries in response to growing opposition to tax increases in New Hampshire, quickly followed by New York.

Nowadays? Americans spend over $1,000 a year on lottery tickets.

The lottery is a game of chance with a rich history. From the Han Dynasty and ancient Rome to the online games we see today – this is how the lottery began.