Powerful allure of $550 million lottery

Despite enormously long odds against winning, thousands line up for a chance at the big Powerball jackpot

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If you do not play, you will not win.

This week, that old lottery slogan was the mantra of the masses, as they sought to parlay $2 lottery tickets into a multimillion-dollar windfall from the $550 million Powerball, the second-largest lottery jackpot in U.S. history.

Lottery purchases soar thanks to Powerball jackpot

Pittsburghers headed out in droves to buy Powerball tickets and a chance at a jackpot in excess of $500 million. (Video by Nate Guidry; 11/28/2012)

"Complete insanity," is how Ally Hampton described it. She was working at the CoGo's gas station on the South Side Wednesday, watching as people arrived "in droves" to purchase their ticket to riches.

The winning Powerball numbers were drawn Wednesday at 11 p.m, but no winner was announced.

Ms. Hampton, 30, of Brookline does not play the lottery.

Well, at least, she didn't before this week.


Her husband suggested over the weekend that they play, since the Powerball jackpot had swelled after no winner was chosen through 15 consecutive drawings held since Oct. 6.

Ms. Hampton said no. Then the jackpot grew to nearly $500 million and she changed her mind.

The couple bought two tickets, choosing numbers derived from a combination of their children's birthdays and their own. A machine at CoGo's spit out another ticket, and Ms. Hampton bought that one, too, and split it with a co-worker and a customer.

Her plans, if she wins a cash payout that could be as high as $360.2 million before taxes, are modest.

She'll give $25,000 to 40 random strangers, then share with family and friends, save enough for her 4-year-old's college education and invest the rest.

She knew that if she did not play, she could not win. But even though she did play, her odds of winning Wednesday weren't great. They were 1 in 175 million.

These are very, very bad odds, Donald Richards has been telling students in his classes this week at Penn State University, where he said, as a statistics professor, he has a duty to point out when people are acting illogically.

He said he pointed out that "the probability of getting killed in a car accident while on your way to get the tickets is higher than the probability of winning, so why would you take the chance?"

The chance of dying in a car accident in any given year is 1 in 10,000, he said, and since Mr. Richards has a doctorate in statistics, he has more stats to put the lottery in perspective.

Here are two: The probability of being hit by lightning in any given year is 1 in a million and the probability of a royal flush in poker is 1 in 650,000.

In fact, Mr. Richards said, people can improve their odds of becoming a millionaire simply by investing $1,000 each year, or about $3 a day, into a stock index fund.

The obvious rejoinder, and one he hears often, is that someone will win the lottery, and you can only win if you play.

"Somebody is going to win," he agreed. "Just not you. Just not me."

No matter the odds, plenty of people tried their luck this week.

The Pennsylvania Lottery reported that there had been more than $64 million in Powerball and Powerplay sales for the current run by noon on Tuesday, with sales reaching a volume of $6,700 per minute.

Lottery officials in the 41 other states where Powerball is played, plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, also reported booming sales for the jackpot, which is smaller only than the $656 million Mega Millions jackpot March 30, which was claimed as $471 million in cash.

It's the kind of money that could transform a life, and even if the $2 lottery ticket doesn't yield a fortune, at the very least it allows Powerball players to dream about what they would do if they won the kitty.

"The reason they are buying it is not because they think they are any more likely to win usually, but because they are thinking about what they would do if they would win," said Elizabeth Kyonka, an assistant professor in the psychology department at West Virginia University who researches gambling.

Paul Woods, 63, of the North Side wasn't thinking about his slim odds when he purchased three Powerball tickets at Liberty News, Downtown, Wednesday morning.

"You gotta be optimistic," he said, and besides, he'd beaten the odds before, first in Vietnam, then in 1979, when he won $15,000 in a lottery game he remembers had odds of winning of 1 in 20,000.

Then, he used the money to furnish his home and to help out some family.

Now, he had grander plans if he gets the windfall.

He'd donate the money to charity, especially to cancer groups, since that's what his mother died from.

He'd open a place for homeless veterans to stay, then use the rest to take care of his children and grandchildren.

"You can't win it if you ain't in it," he said. "And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy."

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Associated Press contributed. Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. First Published November 29, 2012 5:00 AM


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