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A twist on lottery fever: 'You can't lose if you don't play'

Published: Thursday, March 29 2012 7:50 p.m. MDT

People line up inside a Chevron Top Stop store in Malad, Idaho, to buy the Mega Millions lottery tickets Thursday, March 29, 2012.

Winston Armani, Deseret News

Related: 20 things more likely to happen than winning the Mega Millions lottery

MALAD, Idaho — The odds are stacked against Paul Warren of Ogden.

He knows it. And he doesn't care.

"Don't matter about the odds," Warren said. "As far as I'm concerned, the odds are the best when you've got some numbers."

Warren was among the thousands of Utahns who crossed the Idaho border this week for a chance at becoming an instant millionaire. He's got a practically guaranteed chance of coming away a little poorer.

The odds of winning are about 1 in 176 million, according to the Mega Millions website. Yet the lines were long outside the Chevron Top Stop Thursday on the Idaho side of the Utah-Idaho border. Maybe they'll win.

On the other hand, picture a line of 176 million people. That's a line that stretches around the world and keeps going. Might take awhile to buy a ticket, but odds are one person in that line will buy a winning ticket.

Didn't seem to bother the folks in Malad, who selected some numbers and headed back to the Beehive State with Mega Millions lottery tickets clutched in their hands. It's going on in 42 states, and in the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, which participate in the lottery. Utah and Hawaii are the only states that ban gambling, including lotteries.

At an estimated $540 million, it's the largest lottery jackpot in history, surpassing the previous record of $390 million. The jackpot has been growing since Jan. 24. Growing because no one has won, despite those long odds, er, lines.

The size of the jackpot is just too much for many Americans to resist. At least, that's what the states that earn revenues from ticket sales are hoping, said Patrick Pierce, a political science professor at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind.

"That huge jackpot certainly lures more people out of the woodwork to play the lottery," Pierce said. "It's minimal outlay for an infinitesimally small chance at a gargantuan amount of money."

Pierce, who studies state involvement in lotteries, said slogans like, "You can't win if you don't play," are used to sell tickets.

"That's true, but you can't lose if you don't play," he said. "They're counting on citizens not doing the math, thinking, 'It's not so much money. I'll go ahead and plunk it down.' They're never playing the odds when they're playing the lottery."

Warren, in Malad, certainly felt that way. When asked why he plays, he had the slogan down: "If you don't play, you can't win," Warren said.

If there's a single winning ticket with all six numbers, the holder has the choice of collecting about $19.2 million over 26 years or taking a cash option of some $359 million — before taxes. About a third of the winnings will go to the government.

That's got some states salivating.

If a Rhode Island ticket wins, the tax calls for 5.99 percent for the state. That would mean an estimated $23.3 million. Each state is doing its own calculation and hoping for a local winner.

Stronger sales of the $1 lottery tickets have boosted Friday's jackpot from $476 million and it will likely grow through Friday.

Scott Poelman, a private banker with J.P. Morgan, said Utahns have a better chance of improving their financial situations by using more predictable investment strategies.

"It might not be as exciting as winning the lottery, but it's going to give you a better chance of obtaining your goals," Poelman said. "We're not swinging for the fences. We're aiming to preserve wealth."

Contributing: Alex Cabrero

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com, lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dnewspolitics

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