With the multistate Mega Millions jackpot set to reach a world-record $640 million Friday, lottery players across the country are wondering if there's a way to guarantee becoming an overnight multimillionaire.
The answer: Not unless you already are one and own a magic wand.
The jackpot is so large, someone with enough money could theoretically buy up every possible number combination, thereby guaranteeing a winning ticket — but only if you suspended the laws of physics.
So many people were buying tickets Friday that the jackpot actually jumped at midday to $640 million from $540 million.
A $540 million jackpot, if taken as a $390 million lump sum and after federal tax withholding, works out to about $293 million. With the jackpot odds at 1 in 176 million, it would cost $176 million to buy up every combination. Under that scenario, thestrategy would win $117 million — less if your state also withholds taxes.
But there are too many limitations. First, if it takes five seconds to fill out each card, you'd need almost 28 years just to mark the bubbles on the game tickets. You'd also use up the national supply of special lottery paper and lottery-machine printing ink well before all your tickets could be printed out.
With a jackpot this large, experts say, there also is a greater chance of multiple winners. If you have to share the jackpot with even one other winner, you've lost $30 million.
Mike Catalano, chairman of the mathematics department at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., said he covers the odds of winning in lottery games with his students to show them just how unlikely it is to win big.
He concedes the math is clear: The more tickets you buy, the better your chances of winning. So, if you buy 10 tickets filled out 10 different ways, your odds of winning the jackpot 10 in 176 million.
"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.
"You might get some psychological enjoyment from playing the lottery, but from a financial standpoint ... you'd be much better off going to Las Vegas and playing blackjack or the slot machines."
But that chance — however small — of instantaneous, enormous wealth is leading to long lines at convenience stores in 42 states and Washington, D.C., where Mega Millions tickets are sold.
It's why David Kramer, a lawyer in Lincoln, bought a Mega Millions ticket Thursday.
"To me, the value of the lottery ticket isn't the realistic opportunity to win," he said. "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."
Chris Stites, of Fishers, Ind., stopped by a market in downtown Indianapolis on Thursday to spend $20 he and his co-workers pooled for Mega Millions tickets. He said he hopes buying in a group improves their odds.
"I've got as good a shot as anyone," Stites said. "It may be slim, but it's the same as it is for other people."
Even those seemingly well aware of the odds are at least taking a shot this week, including Dymond Fields, of St. Paul, Minn., a retail store cashier who bought one ticket.
"I've got bills to pay," Fields said. "If I don't win, it's money gone. I see people paying $30, $40, $50, and that's just painful."
In line to buy tickets with Fields was 80-year-old Everett Eahmer, also of St. Paul, who 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. "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 spending large amounts of money per person in the hopes of striking it rich.
"We certainly know we get more pool play ... people coming in making very large purchases for a group," said Chuck Strutt, executive director of the Urbandale, Iowa-based Multi-State Lottery Association that oversees the Mega Millions, Powerball and other lotteries. "When people ask me, I just tell them that the odds of a lottery game make it a game of fate. Just buy a ticket, sit back and see if fate points a finger at you for that day."