John Bacon, Jolie Lee and Gary Strauss, USA TODAY
Long odds won't deter long lines at lottery ticket outlets Tuesday in advance of a Mega Millions drawing for one of the largest jackpots in U.S. history.
There are about 259 million number combinations in play for a top prize that now stands at $636 million.
"Even though the odds are against you, it's just the excitement of, 'Hey, I might wake up one day and be a millionaire,' " says Chris Scales, 31, of Nashville. The hot dog vendor says he brings in about $35,000 a year "if I really hustle."
Scales said he usually reserves his lottery playing for jackpots of at least $40 million. Tonight, count him in.
The incredibly remote odds don't really sink in for people, says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has researched the motives underlying lottery ticket purchases.
"People don't really understand probabilities at all," he says. "Once you have a bunch of zeroes, it doesn't matter how many you have - one in 10,000, one in a million or one in a billion. ... People do understand the meaning of the word 'largest.' They overreact to one dimension and underreact to the other."
Apparently so. The record $656 million Mega Millions jackpot in 2012 sold 26 million tickets an hour the day of the March 30 drawing, says Multi-State Lottery Association director Chuck Strutt.
"They're buying like crazy," Ahmed Karim, the owner of a New Brunswick 7-11, told nj.com.
Lottery officials will gauge sales to determine whether to increase the jackpot, which had been set at a mere $586 million.
A $1 billion Christmas Eve jackpot could end up under some lucky winner's tree if no one hits the jackpot tonight or Friday night. The jackpot has rolled over 21 straight times since Oct. 4, when it was a relatively pocket-change $12 million.
Mega Millions jackpots are likely to continue swelling because lottery officials boosted their potential payouts.
Originally, customers chose five numbers from 1-56 and one number from 1-46. The new structure has customers choosing five numbers from 1-75 and one number from 1-15. The change raised the odds of hitting a winner to 1 in 259 million from 1 in 176 million.
Longtime lottery watcher Gail Howard says that with the odds of hitting the jackpot so small, ticket buyers should buy no more than one.
"Your odds are not going to improve that much if you buy 1 ticket or 1,000,'' says Howard, author of Lottery Master Guide. "I also think you should pick your own numbers rather than let a (point of sale) computer do it."