The American dream ticket: Who'll strike it rich in the half-billion lottery?

Unprecedented $540m jackpot prompts hysteria across a nation feeling the pinch

New York

Lottery officials said that tickets for the Mega Millions draw due late last night were selling in New York City alone at the rate of about one million an hour as punters with dollars to spare (and many without) dreamed that perhaps they would be the ones to pick the lucky numbers and win the biggest jackpot in world history.

It may be dawn this morning before America learns who has landed the record $540m (£337m) prize. It is possible even that no one will have picked the lucky combination of numbers and the jackpot will continue to grow before the next draw.

Alternatively, there may be multiple winners which, of course, will mean a sharing of the booty and the super-yacht, private-island fantasies may have to be pared back a little.

The lure of the half-a-billion-and-more bounty was enough to have dreamers queuing at tobacconists and newspaper vendors sometimes around several blocks while office workers eagerly joined pools – a dicey commitment according to lawyers experienced in untangling the bad-tempered knots that occur when an office pool wins and the arguments over who actually participated in it ensue, as they nearly always do.

If the million-an-hour rate in New York was to hold up until the 11pm drawing, it would mean that every single soul in the city would have at least two tickets to their name.

The same frenzy was seen in all of the other 42 states that offer the Mega Millions game as well as Washington DC and the US Virgin Islands.

If the winner today goes for the lump-sum option rather than accepting phased payments over 26 years, they will actually receive $390 million. After tax their takings would be about $293 million.

As is usually the case with gambling, hope and optimism triumphs over common sense. Statisticians noted that the odds of winning last night were roughly 1 in 176 million. You were 8,000 times more likely to be murdered than to be named the winner.

Devilishly, of course, the more tickets that a person bought, the more their chances grew.

"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," noted Mike Catalano of the mathematics department at Dakota Wesleyan University. "If you buy 50 tickets, you've equalised your chances of winning the jackpot with getting struck by lightning."

For their part, the organisers of Mega Millions were not encouraging people to break open their piggy banks to buy as many tickets as possible.

"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. "Just buy a ticket, sit back and see if fate points a finger at you for that day."

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