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How Powerball manipulated the odds to create a $1.5 billion jackpot

The rush to buy tickets for the biggest-ever Powerball lottery jackpot is expected to push the prize ever higher by the time for Wednesday night's drawing. Rough Cut (no reporter narration). (Video: Reuters)
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If you think the Powerball jackpot soaring to $1.5 billion is just a pleasant surprise, think again: This was by design.

Sure, luck had a role. It always does. But a rule change in October made it much easier for the lottery jackpot to reach these world-record heights by making it a lot harder for players to win it.

Technically speaking, winning a prize is easier now: A Powerball player has a 1-in-25 chance of winning something, compared to a 1-in-32 chance before the change, which was implemented in early October.

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But that same change made taking home the jackpot much more difficult, as the odds rose from 1 in roughly 175 million to 1 in roughly 292 million.

The result? Jackpots that grow larger and larger — and even larger still — as more and more drawings fail to produce winning tickets.

“Powerball has been revamped seven other times in its 23-year history so that the game can continue to be attractive to players by delivering the big jackpots that players want, and these new changes will do just that,” Gary Grief, executive director of the Texas Lottery, said in a statement when the change was implemented.

In other words: Bring on the soaring jackpots!

To understand how the Multi-State Lottery Association changed the rules, you have to first understand how the game works. The grand prize goes to the player (or players) whose ticket matches all of the numbers on five white balls and one red ball, otherwise known as the Powerball. Players can also win smaller prizes by matching either the red Powerball, five or fewer white balls or some combination thereof.

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Customers wait in line outside the Blue Bird Liquor store to buy Powerball lottery tickets in Hawthorne, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. A lottery official says the estimated Powerball jackpot remains over a billion. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

To make the jackpot harder to win, the association, , which runs the game, simply increased the number of white balls. That change — growing the pool from 59 to 69 choices — more than doubled the available combinations of white balls. To make it easier to win any prize, the group decreased the number of Powerball options from 35 to 26.

The result? It is now harder to win all but the smallest prizes. The odds went up for the jackpot and the next five prizes. The only rewards that became easier to win were the two $4 prizes and one of the two $7 prizes.

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The Odds

Note: Red shading denotes harder odds. California follows separate rules and, therefore, has different payouts. 

Matching combination Prizes Current odds  (1 in…) Previous odds (1 in…)
5 white balls and the powerball The grand prize 292,201,338 175,223,510
5 white balls $1,000,000 11,688,054 5,153,633
4 white balls and the Powerball $50,000 (formerly $10,000) 913,129 648,976
4 white balls $100 36,525 19,088
3 white balls and the Powerball $100 14,494 12,245
3 white balls $7 580 360
2 white balls and the Powerball $7 701 706
1 white balls and the Powerball $4 92 111
The Powerball $4 38 55

In his earlier statement, the Texas Lottery’s Grief also said the change was intended to raise the odds of winning the jackpot to match a growing number of players.

“The playing population of Powerball has almost doubled in recent years, and these changes reflect a right-sizing of the game for the current population that is playing the game,” he said.

The Powerball jackpot was $2 million when the game launched in 15 states in 1992. Today, you can play the game in 47 states. It generates more than $4 billion in annual sales.

The current jackpot for the twice-weekly game started at $40 million on Nov. 4, according to the Associated Press. No one has matched all six Powerball numbers since then, so the prize kept growing. The $1.5 billion winning combination will be drawn on Wednesday night. If it fails to match, the prize will grow even further.

Related stories:

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