OMAHA, Neb. — A world-record $540 million Mega Millions jackpot had lottery players lining up for tickets early Friday and many wondering if there's any 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 could theoretically buy up every possible number combination, thereby guaranteeing a winning ticket — but doing so would mean putting up millions of dollars on the front end.
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 limitations abound. 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.
A jackpot this large also means a greater chance of multiple winners. And if you have to share the jackpot with even one other winner, you've lost $30 million.
Such uncertainty has been little deterrence to players converging on convenience stores in 42 states and Washington, D.C., where Mega Millions tickets are sold.
Many in Indiana were further encouraged by a free shot at instantaneous, enormous wealth: Hoosier Lottery officials were giving away one free Mega Millions ticket to each of the first 540 players at several outlets around the state Friday.
In Indianapolis, college student Chris Stewart said he showed up at the lottery's headquarters at 6:30 a.m., two hours before the doors opened, to be at the head of a line of about 60 people who wanted to claim a freebie.
"I've never seen a jackpot like this before," said Stewart, who bought five additional tickets for the drawing. "If I won — I mean wow! I just don't know what I'd do. I'd really have to think what I could do with it."
Mike Catalano, chairman of the mathematics department at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., concedes the math is clear: The more tickets you buy, the better your chances of winning.
But even buying 10 tickets filled out 10 different ways only increasing odds of winning the jackpot to 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," he said.
For David Kramer, a lawyer in Lincoln, Neb., buying his Mega Millions ticket Thursday wasn't about "the realistic opportunity to win."
"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," he said.
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 just one ticket.
"I see people paying $30, $40, $50, and that's just painful," he said.
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 per person.
"When people ask me, I just tell them that the odds of a lottery game make it a game of fate," said Chuck Strutt, executive director of the Urbandale, Iowa-based Multi-State Lottery Association that oversees the Mega Millions, Powerball and other lotteries. "Just buy a ticket, sit back and see if fate points a finger at you for that day."