With the multistate Mega Millions jackpot set to reach a world-record $540 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.
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, the strategy 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.
In Idaho lottery officials are seeing record sales, many to Utah residents making the drive up to a number of border communities where the tickets are sold. Utah dies not allow lottery ticket sales.
Idaho typically sells 200,000 to 250,000 tickets. "We're at 800,000 right now and expect to sell over 1 million by Friday night," says Idaho state lottery director Jeff Anderson.
Clerks in Malad, Idaho say customers should plan on at least a two-hour wait to buy tickets and caution that many of the ATM machines in the town have run out of cash.
At the Beaver Dam Service Station in Beaver Dam, Ariz., store clerk Lisa Lorton said people are driving in from Nevada and Utah -- states without the Mega Millions lottery. It's been crazy, she said, with lines out the door and it's been that way for three days.
"We have lottery at the bar and lottery here and both places are out to the parking lot," Lorton said Friday. "Some people are buying a dollar's worth. Other people are buying $300 worth."
One man says he drove 30 miles from St. George, Utah, to purchase a Mega Millions ticket Friday.
Winning "would make my day," Curt Colbert said. "It would make a lot of people's days because I'm a pretty generous guy."
Lines are also out the door at Rosie's Den cafe in the rural northwestern Arizona community of White Hills, 72 miles southeast of Las Vegas. Rosie's is one of the closest points to Nevada for buyers to purchase Mega Millions tickets since Nevada doesn't offer the game.
Rosie's worker Christine Millim said it's been nonstop for the past four days as people from Nevada come in to buy tickets,
Millim said they're not afraid to plunk down big money for the jackpot. One person spent $2,600 on tickets.
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."