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How Powerball tweaked the odds to make another massive jackpot

(Orlin Wagner/AP file)

At $460 million, Wednesday night's estimated Powerball prize would be one of the 10 largest lottery jackpots in U.S. history, and the math is working out in favor of lotto commissions.

Less than three years ago, your chances of becoming an instant millionaire were 1 in roughly 175 million. Now, the odds are 1 in roughly 292 million.

Tweaks to the game in October 2015 increased the number of total balls, from 59 to 69, from which players need to pick five. It may seem like a modest change, but the odds of winning the jackpot plummeted.

So now it's even harder to strike it rich with Powerball, leading to fewer chances of big payouts, which in turn results in ballooning jackpots: When a drawing is held and there's no winning ticket, the prize pool rolls over — and expands.

In turn, the jackpots become bigger and bigger (and bigger [and bigger]).

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

Then, you won't believe what happens next.

Media reports (like this one!) and social media posts fuel an ever-increasing prize, Colorado Lottery spokeswoman Kelly Tabor told The Washington Post in August, when the Powerball jackpot surged to $758.7 million — the second-biggest lottery payout in U.S. history.

That payout ballooned as the winning drawing approached because of what Tabor called “jackpot chasers,” the casual lottery players who buy in when the Powerball pot reaches astronomical heights.

“That's really driving up sales right now,” she said at the time.

That's also how the $1.6 billion amount paid out three ways in January 2016 reached its historic value.

The current prize pool jumped $20 million on Wednesday morning, to $460 million, thanks to the jackpot chasers.

If a winning Powerball ticket is drawn Wednesday night, it will be the 10th-biggest U.S. jackpot ever and the seventh-biggest Powerball payout.

Coincidentally, the Mega Millions jackpot is also surging: The jackpot for Friday's Mega Millions drawing stands at $418 million.

The real winners

States, not necessarily players, are reaping the rewards of the sales surge. U.S. lottery ticket sales in fiscal 2016 totaled more than $80 billion, according to figures from the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries. That's more than was spent on movies, video games, books, music and sports tickets combined, the Associated Press noted.

The fiscal 2016 total (covering the period through June 30 in most jurisdictions) was a $7 billion increase from fiscal 2015 revenue, which grew $3 billion compared with 2014 after two years of flat sales.

In other words: The rule change reaped big rewards for states and makes it harder for players to win big.

Lottery ticket sales, defended by state commissions as a way to help fund education and veterans programs, have drawn fire in recent years. HBO's John Oliver delivered a scathing segment in 2014 questioning the potential harm for addiction and some dubious claims of how much revenue actually reaches state programs.

When it comes to modest numbers, the recent rule changes technically make it easier to win a prize because of a reduced number of red balls, known as the Powerball.

Players in Colorado, for example, have a 1-in-38 chance to win the smallest amount, which is $4 — double the cost of a standard ticket, Tabor told The Post.

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The state has seen an uptick in the number of $50,000 and $100,000 prize winners since the rule change, she said.

“That was the feedback from players. They wanted a better shot at smaller prizes,” Tabor said.

Winners will typically opt for a lump sum instead of yearly payments spread across 29 years, Tabor said.

That value for the current payout is estimated to be about $291 million, depending on state taxes.

New York, which has a relatively high state tax rate, sold the highest number of lottery tickets in fiscal 2016, with sales of $9.69 billion, according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries. (California was second, with sales of $6.27 billion.)

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

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

This post, originally published in August, has been updated.

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