Lottery Odds – A Book Review

A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are awarded by chance to a class of bettors. Typically, a bettor writes his name and the amount of money staked on a ticket, then deposits it with the lottery organization for shuffling or other means of randomizing to identify the winners. Prizes may take the form of cash or items of varying value. In some cultures, the size of prizes is set to reflect the costs of organizing and promoting the lottery. Normally, a percentage of the total pool goes toward the cost of prizes and a portion of proceeds is paid to state or other sponsors.

Lottery participants are often unclear about the odds and how they work, and many people develop quotes unquote “systems” that do not withstand statistical reasoning. They may buy tickets at specific stores or times of day and believe that certain types of tickets are better than others, or they may bet a certain percentage of their incomes on the lottery every week, believing that the longer it is before someone wins, the more likely they will win themselves.

Jackson’s story begins with a bucolic small town setting, and a narrator establishes that the villagers gather in the town square for the yearly lottery ritual, which lasts about two hours. Children recently on summer break are the first to assemble, and they demonstrate the stereotypical norm of small-town life by warming up to each other and chatting. Soon adult men, then women, join them.

The villagers begin to select from a pile of stones prepared earlier by the children, and as they do so, Tessie Hutchinson becomes increasingly visible. Her pleas to stop have little effect. Old Man Warner fears that if they change anything about the lottery, it will become primitive again. They seem to have no interest in understanding why the ritual has been so long a tradition, or even remembering why it was begun.

Tessie is selected for the drawing, which will involve throwing stones at her. She does not run away as other villagers have in the past, but she stands her ground, insisting that the lottery is unfair. She pleads to be saved, but the villagers continue to pelt her, and she ultimately dies as a result of being stoned to death.

The villagers of the story seem to be blind to the fact that they are executing a ritual murder, and that their participation in it will likely lead to a violent end for one of their own. But when we consider how much money is poured into the lottery industry and the millions of Americans who buy tickets every year, it becomes obvious that the lottery does not work to prevent violence against anyone. It just helps to make wealthy speculators richer and, in the process, creates a culture that seems to accept it as an inevitable part of human life. This is not a system that we can be proud of.

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