Consider This: Odds of Winning Friday Jackpot at 1 in 176M

Run the numbers and it's clear, lottery players are really just buying shared excitement

By Patrick Healy, John Simerson and Lori Preuitt
|  Friday, Mar 30, 2012  |  Updated 4:40 PM PDT
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Dr. Ken Alexander, a mathematics professor at USC, provides a reality check on Friday's lottery odds. NBC4's Patrick Healy reports

Patrick Healy & David Gregory

Dr. Ken Alexander, a mathematics professor at USC, provides a reality check on Friday's lottery odds. NBC4's Patrick Healy reports

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Mega Millions: Recent Bay Area Winners

Convenience stores across the bay area are flooded with people buying lotto tickets. Tomorrow's jackpot has grown to a record $540 million. NBC Bay Area's Joe Rosato Jr. has the story of 12 recent lotto winners, who aren't ready to quit their day jobs, just yet.
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UPDATE: Lottery officials say if no one picks all six MEGA Million lottery numbers tonight, Tuesday's jackpot will be $975 million. They say the cash option will be $698.9 million. They did not have a percentage chance of the numbers hitting Friday, but said there is a "very very good chance" we will have a winner tonight. A statistician who spoke to NBC Bay Area Jodi Hernandez estimates chances of hitting it tonight are about 80-85 percent, depending on how many people buy tickets.

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The odds of winning Friday's lottery jackpot might be difficult to comprehend, but that isn't stopping  customers at Kavanagh Liquors in San Lorenzo from standing in line for nearly an hour in hopes that the "lucky" store makes them rich.

Even on Thursday, the lines at Kavanagh's snaked through the store and out the door for about a block and that was when the MEGA Million jackpot was worth $540 million.

Now that it is worth an estimated $640 million, those lines will only increase as we get closer to the 8 p.m. draw. Lottery officials say that is the largest jackpot in the history of lotteries around the world.

The cash option is $462 million, according to officials. Kavanagh manager David Spahn said he opened an hour early Friday and still found a line outside the door when he arrived at work.

But at $1 a ticket, what are the odds of picking a winning ticket -- even at a "lucky" store?

According to Dr. Ken Alexander, a mathematics professor at USC, the odds of winning are one in 175.7 million. That raises the question: Why not guarantee you win by buying all possible ticket combinations?

“Well, a number of things get in the way of that,” Alexander said.

Assuming 350 million tickets are sold, there’s a better than 90 percent chance that there will be at least two winners. So after taxes, you’ll likely come out with a loss.

And, assuming it takes about five seconds to fill out each card, you'd need five years to mark the bubbles on the game tickets. There goes that plan.

A student and her friend dropped a more reasonable $20 at a 7-11 near USC Thursday for 20 tickets. That made Michelle Chong's odds of winning 1 in 9 million -- daunting odds, but at least she bought guaranteed herself some excitement Friday.

"It's just the excitement that you might win," said Chong. "The number is so big." 

Had Chong purchased 50 tickets, her chances of winning the jackpot would be comparable with her odds of being struck by lightning.

Based on U.S. averages, you're about 8,000 times more likely to be murdered than win the lottery and 20,000 times more likely to die in a vehicle crash.

But what about the strategy of choosing outlets that have previously sold winners?

"If you buy them from some store that sells a lot of tickets, then the store is more likely to have a winner,” Alexander said. “But your 10 (tickets) have the same probability as if you buy them from anywhere else.” 

The store that sells the winning ticket will get the maximum $1 million.

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