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How Mega Millions changed the odds to create a record-breaking $1.6 billion jackpot

Mega Millions hopefuls buy lottery tickets again and again — but how likely is it that any one person will win? (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

They don’t buy lottery tickets. Not habitually, anyway.

But the jackpot chasers typically emerge when they see the Mega Millions prize tick up and up and up, and they figure, “Hell, why not?”

That’s by design.

And if you have noticed a run of eye-popping jackpots from Mega Millions and the similarly designed Powerball recently, that’s by design, too.

There were no winners in Friday’s Mega Millions drawing for a $1 billion jackpot. (Winning numbers: 15, 23, 53, 65, 70 and Mega Ball 7.) So the prize rolled over and ballooned to an estimated $1.6 billion — “a new world record,” according to lottery officials. On Saturday the Powerball jackpot also continued to swell, reaching $620 million, after no tickets got all six numbers (16, 54, 57, 62, 69, and Powerball 23).

The next Mega Millions drawing is at 11 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday, with the Powerball drawing on Wednesday.

If somebody wins the Mega Millions on Tuesday night, it will be the largest jackpot in history, edging a 2016 Powerball jackpot that was worth $1.58 billion, split across three winning tickets.

The current Powerball jackpot continues to grow, too. Nobody won Wednesday’s drawing, so on Saturday that jackpot will be worth an estimated $470 million.

Mega Millions has existed in some form since 1996. But only recently has the game been shelling out massive jackpots. The lottery officials who run Mega Millions tweaked the rules and odds of the game last October to make jackpots pay out less frequently, spurring their monster growth. Since that change, three of the six largest Mega Millions jackpots have been paid out.

And then there’s the current, record-shattering Mega Millions drawing.

“Ultimately, these games, they’re all about the jackpots,” Gordon Medenica, Maryland’s lottery and gaming director, told The Washington Post.

Medenica, the lead director of the lottery consortium known as the Mega Millions Group, said in a statement Saturday that “Mega Millions has already entered historic territory, but it’s truly astounding to think that now the jackpot has reached an all-time world record. It’s hard to overstate how exciting this is — but now it’s really getting fun.”

And, of course, jackpot mania is kicking in across the country — exactly the way lottery officials dreamed it up.

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The officials had been worried that the relatively smaller but more frequent prizes — a “paltry” $100 million, for instance — would result in “jackpot fatigue,” which is why they tweaked the game last year, Medenica told The Post.

Now, the Mega Millions jackpots grow and grow, creating huge prizes with infrequent payouts. The other significant change that helped fuel the jackpot growth was the increase in the Mega Millions ticket price, which doubled to $2.

The last time somebody hit the Mega Millions was July 24, when an office pool in Silicon Valley won the $543 million jackpot. The jackpot reset at $40 million for the next drawing and has been soaring ever since.

The game — played in 44 states, plus the District and the U.S. Virgin Islands — becomes a “cultural phenomenon” somewhere in the $200 million to $400 million range, said Medenica, who holds the informal and rotating director position for an 11-state Mega Millions consortium.

When the jackpots flirt with the half-billion-dollar mark, state lotteries don’t even feel the need to advertise, he said.

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.

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.

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Lottery officials have said that the change was in response to demand from players that they wanted to start with a big jackpot and have a better shot at smaller prizes, such as getting your $2 back all the way up to a $1 million payout for matching all five numbers.

State lottery commissions have relied on human psychology and the spirit of optimism to fuel sales.

They discovered that when the jackpot grows to an absurdly high figure, even skeptical players will buy tickets — perhaps on a whim at a convenience store or by chipping in a few bucks in an office pool, Medenica said.

Powerball announced that a single ticket sold at a convenience store in Chicopee, Mass., was the winner of the Aug. 23 $758.7 million jackpot. Here’s how winning the lottery has brought more than a windfall for some. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

He calls these gamblers “infrequent players,” and their participation helps boost jackpots to historic levels, he said. Colorado Lottery spokeswoman Kelly Tabor referred to them as “jackpot chasers” as the Powerball jackpot swelled to the second largest in lottery history.

That is, until the current Mega Millions drawing, which may produce one or more instant mega millionaires.

Mega Millions is in “uncharted territory,” Medenica said, and the lotteries’ financial models cannot predict what will happen. The estimated jackpot may be revised to account for higher ticket sales if officials see an uptick in activity before the next drawing.

Ahead of Friday’s drawing, the jackpot was bumped on Wednesday from $868 million to $900 million. On Thursday, that figure rose to $970 million. Midday Friday, it jumped to $1 billion.

U.S. lottery sales totaled $77.7 billion in fiscal 2018, up about $5 billion from the previous year, according to La Fleur’s Magazine, a publication focused on the lottery industry. Sales were still down, compared with 2016, when they surpassed $80 billion, according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries. In that year, lottery ticket sales eclipsed the combined total of what Americans spent on movies, video games, books, music and sports tickets.

Lottery sales, defended by state commissions as a way to help fund education and veterans programs, have drawn fire in recent years. For instance, a KPCC/LAist investigation in California “found contributions to education by the lottery are essentially unchanged from 12 years ago, even though revenues are up by billions.”

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