Powerball dreams swirl over $550M jackpot, which likely will grow

Matthew Santoni
| Thursday, May 16, 2013, 6:57 a.m.

If Jim Reese hits the near-record Powerball jackpot in Saturday's drawing, his first call won't be to an accountant but a doctor.

“Most likely, I'd have a heart attack and die from all the anxiety. I couldn't talk to anybody for the first couple days,” said Reese, 57, a bike messenger from Point Breeze, as he purchased one ticket Downtown on Thursday.

“Once I got over that, I guess I'd put everyone through the ‘birthday test': If you didn't call me on my birthday, I probably won't take your call about the money,” he said.

Like millions of others in 43 states, the Virgin Islands and Washington, Reese is dreaming of hitting the estimated $550 million Powerball jackpot — the third-largest prize in lottery history and the third prize exceeding a half-billion dollars since the beginning of 2012.

When no one won the grand prize in the drawing Wednesday for $360 million, a frenzy of ticket-buying drove the annuitized jackpot to $475 million by morning and an estimated $550 million by afternoon.

“People are excited; they're just dreaming right now,” said Belinda Taylor, a cashier at Smithfield News, Downtown. “There are groups of people coming in and buying a bunch of tickets together, like an office pool, and there are all our regulars, too.”

In Westmoreland County, Bob Linden of Greensburg spent $10 on tickets but isn't confident about winning.

“You're buying a dream, that's all you're doing. A chance to dream a little bit,” he said. “There's a better chance of me flapping my wings and making it to the moon.”

Clyde Barrow, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and an expert on state lotteries, said that when prizes reach the hundreds of millions of dollars, people who don't usually buy tickets will take a chance on $2 for millions more, and those who usually buy tickets will buy more. Hype adds to the pool and drives the prize skyward, but the odds of winning on a single ticket remain about 1 in 175 million, he said.

Pennsylvania retailers have sold $56.2 million worth of Powerball tickets since the “run” began in early April, officials said.

“I've been playing off and on for 26 years, and I hit one time for 20 bucks,” said Larry Mooris, 57, of Clairton. “I'll just pray to God he'll help me out, and I'll be sure to pass it on if I win because, you know, that was other people's money to begin with.”

Lottery officials expect giant jackpots to continue to climb more quickly, thanks in part to a game redesign in January 2012 that increased the odds of winning some kind of prize but reduced possible number combinations to win the Powerball.

“It usually took a handful of months, if not several months, for a jackpot to reach this large amount,” said Mary Neubauer, spokeswoman for the Iowa Lottery, one of the founding Powerball states. “Now it's achieving that within a handful of weeks. I think the redesign is achieving exactly what we had wanted it to achieve, which is the bigger, faster-growing jackpot.”

The two highest all-time jackpots — $656 million from a Mega Millions drawing and $587.5 million from a Powerball drawing — occurred in 2012.

Since Pennsylvania became one of 43 states participating in the Powerball drawing in 2002, 16 jackpot tickets have been sold in the state, said Pennsylvania Lottery spokesman Gary Miller. The last time a Pittsburgh resident won a jackpot was in January 2005, for a cash prize of $14.7 million, he said. A Butler County winner later that year got a $10.1 million cash prize.

Barrow said the ever-larger prizes accomplish the goal of selling more tickets and bringing revenue to states and retailers. In 2012, Pennsylvania lottery games raised more than $1 billion for programs for senior citizens.

“It's interesting that we're not getting excited until it hits $400 million now; it used to be everyone got excited around $200 million,” Barrow said. “We used to get these kind of stories once every few years; now we get them a couple times a year.”

Staff writer Stacey Federoff and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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