So many people are buying Mega Millions tickets that unique number combinations are shrinking

A customer purchases Mega Millions lottery tickets at a retailer in Arlington, Va., on Monday.
A customer purchases Mega Millions lottery tickets at a retailer in Arlington, Va., on Monday.
(Erik S. Lesser / EPA/Shutterstock)
Washington Post

Just stop somewhere — a coffee shop, the grocery store checkout, or your office — and listen.

Odds are, someone within earshot is hatching a plan to buy mansions and yachts as long as a city block. But of course, many are sure to explain, they will divert serious cash to charity after winning what lottery officials call the biggest lottery jackpot in history.

Tuesday’s Mega Millions drawing will pay out at least $1.6 billion to winning jackpot ticket holders, if there are any, after Friday’s already record-setting drawing ended with no ticket matching all six numbers. That number is “uncharted territory” for Mega Millions, lottery officials said.


The jackpot will increase to $2 billion for Friday’s drawing, Gentry said, if there are no winners.

But the chances are rising that a winner or winners will emerge after the numbers are called.

By then, lottery officials estimate 75% of all number combinations will be purchased, Maryland Lottery and Gaming spokeswoman Carole Gentry told the Washington Post. With more than 300 million possible combinations, the odds of winning are 1 in 302,575,350.

More than one set of winning numbers can be bought, though that would mean two or more people would have to share the massive payout.

The fever has struck nationwide.

On Thursday, ahead of the last drawing, in California players were buying 200 tickets a second, the Associated Press reported.

Back on the East Coast on Friday, about 9,100 tickets were purchased per minute in Maryland in a two-hour window ahead of the drawing, state lottery officials said.

The Virginia Lottery projects sales after Friday’s drawing through Tuesday’s drawing will approach $19 million, lottery spokeswoman Jennifer Mullen said. In the sales peak, as many as 12,700 tickets will be sold per minute, Mullen said.

The deadline for buying tickets in most states is 10:45 p.m. EDT, or 15 minutes ahead of the drawing, though some stop sales earlier.

What’s my payout if I win?

The estimated cash option is about $905 million should a winner choose to take a one-time lump sum payment instead of annual payouts over 30 years, according to Mega Millions officials.

But that’s before taxes. You’d get about half of that after state and federal taxes take a big bite of your winnings, the AP reported. The annual payouts would net a higher payout over time, but you would have to squirrel away enough money to buy, say, a struggling NFL team.

And if you take the annual payouts rather than the lump sum, you may even be an eventual billionaire. The website breaks down what your winnings could look like after taxes for your state. Even highly taxed states like New York show figures cresting a billion dollars after 30 years of payments.

Is it me, or are lottery jackpots huge these days?

It’s not just you. Lottery officials count on enormous jackpots to draw in players who would ordinarily avoid participating, so last October they made two big changes. They doubled ticket prices to $2 — and tweaked the formula to make it easier to win smaller prizes but harder to win the jackpot.

Here’s how Mega Millions used to work: Players picked five numbers from 1 to 75 and a Mega number from 1 to 15. The odds of winning the top prize were 1 in 258,890,850.

Since Mega Millions modified the formula, players now pick five numbers from 1 to 70 and a Mega number of 1 to 25. The odds of winning the jackpot are now 1 in 302,575,350.

In other words, reducing the number of balls for the first five numbers increases the chances of winning a smaller prize. But raising the number of Mega Balls makes it harder to win the jackpot. (You still win the big jackpot by matching all six winning numbers in a drawing.)

Powerball made similar changes to its rules in 2015. That game itself is currently at a monster jackpot, though a small one relative to Mega Millions, at $620 million ahead of Wednesday’s drawing.

Do people think they’re going to win?

They do.

“I believe I already won,” Joseph Rauch told Reuters. “I believe in the law of attraction. So what’s meant to be is already gonna be.”

Others are already self-read experts on how to deal with such an enormous and public prize. “I would incorporate myself as a business and become my own company,” Gregory Baron said in New York City.

And even apparent fatalists are wandering to the corner store for a shot at the jackpot.

Hank Kattan is 75 years old. He does not expect to win at all. And yet.

“I’ll never win, but you gotta give it a shot,” he told Reuters. “I’d like to change my way of life.”

Horton writes for the Washington Post. The Washington Post’s Amy B Wang and J. Freedom du Lac contributed to this report.