OMAHA, Neb. – Lottery ticket lines swelled as Americans wagered nearly $1.5 billion on the longest of long shots: a less than 1 percent chance to join the 1 percent Friday night as the winner of a record $640 million Mega Millions jackpot.
A café worker in Arizona reported selling $2,600 worth of tickets to one buyer, while a retired soldier in Wisconsin doubled his regular weekly ticket spending to $55. But each would have to put down millions more to guarantee winning what could be the biggest single lotto payout in the world.
“I feel like a fool throwing that kind of money away,” said Jesse Carter, who spent the $55 and donated the last two tickets he bought at a Milwaukee store Friday to a charity. “But it’s a chance you take in life, with anything you do.”
The jackpot, if taken as a $462 million lump sum and after federal tax withholding, works out to about $347 million. With the jackpot odds at 1 in 176 million, it would cost $176 million to buy up every combination. Under that scenario, the strategy would win $171 million — less if your state also withholds taxes.
Laura Horsley, who does communications and marketing for a trade association, bought $20 worth of Quick Pick tickets at a downtown Washington, D.C., liquor store Friday. But Horsley, who said she won’t buy a lottery ticket unless the jackpot tops $100 million, remained realistic.
“I don’t actually think I’m going to win, and I don’t believe in superstitions or numbers or anything like that,” she said. “I just figured it’s right around the corner. I’d be crazy not at least to give it a shot.”
Thousands of players — who converged on convenience stores in 42 states and Washington, D.C., where Mega Millions tickets are sold — agreed.
Kelly Cripe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Lottery Commission, said that as of Tuesday, nationwide sales for the Mega Millions drawing totaled more than $839 million. Officials projected an additional $618.5 million in sales ahead of Friday’s drawing, however, for a projected total sales figure of more than $1.46 billion.
“This is unprecedented,” Cripe said Friday by e-mail.
Some Indiana players managed to get freebies, as Hoosier Lottery officials gave away one free Mega Millions ticket to each of the first 540 players at several outlets around the state Friday — a plan announced before the jackpot grew by $100 million.
In Indianapolis, college student Chris Stewart said he showed up at the lottery’s headquarters at 6:30 a.m. to be first in a line.
“I’ve never seen a jackpot like this before,” said Stewart, who bought five additional tickets. “If I won — I mean wow! I just don’t know what I’d do. I’d really have to think what I could do with it.”
The lines were out the door at Rosie’s Den cafe in the rural northwestern Arizona community of White Hills, 72 miles southeast of Las Vegas and one of the closest points to Nevada — which doesn’t offer Mega Millions — for buyers to get in the game.
Rosie’s worker Christine Millim said it’s been nonstop for four days.
“In one step I sold $2,600 worth so, that was one person,” she said.
Mike Catalano, chairman of the mathematics department at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., concedes the math is clear: The more tickets you buy, the better chances you have of winning. Better long-shot chances, of course.
“You are about 50 times as likely to get struck by lightning as to win the lottery, based on the 90 people a year getting struck by lightning,” Catalano said. “Of course, if you buy 50 tickets, you’ve equalized your chances of winning the jackpot with getting struck by lightning.”
Based on other U.S. averages, you’re about 8,000 times more likely to be murdered than to win the lottery, and about 20,000 times more likely to die in a car crash than hit the lucky numbers, Catalano said.
For David Kramer, a lawyer in Lincoln, Neb., buying his Mega Millions ticket wasn’t about “the realistic opportunity to win.”
“It’s the fact that for three days, the daydreaming time about what I would do if I won is great entertainment and, frankly, a very nice release from a normal day,” he said.
Everett Eahmer, 80, of St. Paul, Minn., said he’s been playing the lottery “since the beginning.”
“If I win, the first thing I’m going to do is buy a (Tim) Tebow football shirt, and I’m going to do the Tebow pose,” said Eahmer, who bought five tickets Thursday. “I’m with him in honoring a higher power.”
Lottery officials are happy to have Friday’s record Mega Millions jackpot fueling ticket sales, but even they caution against overspending.
“When people ask me, I just tell them that the odds of a lottery game make it a game of fate,” said Chuck Strutt, executive director of the Urbandale, Iowa-based Multi-State Lottery Association that oversees the Mega Millions, Powerball and other lotteries. “Just buy a ticket, sit back and see if fate points a finger at you for that day.”
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