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Mega Millions jackpot, already at $586M, climbs toward new record

| Monday, Dec. 16, 2013, 8:48 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Joe Szakacs of New Kensington buys Mega Millions tickets for Tuesday's drawing from Christopher Bachman, manager of Sam's Pop and Beer Shop in Arnold on Monday, Dec. 16, 2013.

Players have about as much chance of winning the enormous Mega Millions jackpot on Tuesday as they do of meeting the real Santa Claus.

That hasn't deterred the millions of players snapping up tickets at an accelerating pace for a chance to win a payoff that the game's operators say could rise above $1 billion by Christmas Eve. That's if nobody beats the 1-in-259-millon odds on Tuesday or Friday when the next sets of numbers are drawn.

“We had predicted last week that if we are still on the same roll on Christmas Eve, we'll definitely be over a billion (dollars),” said Paula Otto, executive director of the Virginia Lottery and Mega Millions' lead director.

“It's a cheap way to dream,” said Joe Gordon, 47, of Elliott as he picked up a pair of tickets on Monday at the Quick Stop in Bloomfield. “I know I'm not going to win, but for two bucks I can dream for a couple of days.”

Jeff Law also has dreams.

“The odds are astronomical,” said Law, 46, of Sugar Top, who was purchasing tickets at the Quick Stop. “Just the chance to win — I could help a lot of people out, pay some bills off and definitely leave Pittsburgh for someplace that's warm. That's worth the investment of a couple bucks. ... There are worse things people can spend their money on.”

Strong weekend ticket sales raised the official estimate for Tuesday's jackpot to $586 million. Payout from the jackpot would be $316.5 million before taxes.

In 21 drawings since Oct. 1, no one has won, and the jackpot is quickly approaching last year's record $656 million monster.

The large Mega Millions prize is the product of a major game revamp in October that dramatically changed the odds of winning the jackpot from 1 in 176 million to 1 in 259 million.

Tulane University estimates that the odds of being hit and dying from an asteroid or comet are about 1 in 250,000; dying in an airplane crash at 1 in 30,000; and dying in a shark attack at 1 in 8 million. Vegas Insider put the latest odds of the Steelers winning this season's Super Bowl at one in 650.

The jackpot, which is the fourth-largest in the nation's history, has benefited from heavy sales in the past several days.

Otto noted that the higher the jackpot, the higher the sales. For example, when the jackpot was $99 million on Nov. 5, lottery officials sold just over $20 million worth of tickets. For Friday's $425 million jackpot, $168 million worth of tickets were sold.

Otto said that she expects sales to spike on Tuesday before the drawing.

“I think we'll be very close to the record and maybe even surpass it,” Otto said, although she acknowledged sales are difficult to predict.

“Lotto players are procrastinators. They tend to buy on the day of the draw,” she said.

By the time of Tuesday's drawing, game operators predict 65 percent of possible number combinations will have been sold, said Pennsylvania Lottery spokesman Gary Miller. That doesn't mean there's a 65 percent chance a winning ticket will be drawn, but it roughly correlates, he said.

In Pennsylvania, about 35.8 million tickets have been sold during this 10-week rollover run. That translates into $40 million in sales when factoring in the extra $1 “Megaplier” option on some tickets, which allows players to increase their non-jackpot winnings.

Miller declined to comment on how high the jackpot could rise before a winner is drawn.

“The PA Lottery won't speculate on that,” he said. “We live in the now.”

Otto said officials have never had such a huge jackpot at this time of year, and it's unclear how holiday shoppers are driving sales.

“To have that kind of money on the line the week before Christmas, we've never had that happen before,” she said. “What fun.”

The Associated Press contributed. Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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