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How Mega Millions changed the game so everyone gets rich — except you

With no winners in recent drawings, the Powerball and Mega Millions lottery jackpots are growing as ticket sales soar. (Video: Reuters)
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Scores of potential one percenters will be glued to their TVs on Friday night when six Mega Millions balls fall into place.

But a recent rule change has made it harder for anyone to win the estimated $450 million jackpot (or $281 million if you opt for the cash buyout).

Mega Millions (and Powerball, whose Saturday-night jackpot now stands at $570 million) discovered that when the jackpot grows to an absurdly high figure, even skeptical players will buy tickets (New York Lottery's commission tagline: “Hey, You Never Know"). Kelly Tabor, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Lottery, called them “jackpot chasers” in August.

Tabor also said customers wanted more chances to win smaller prizes. In response, both Powerball and Mega Millions tweaked their formulas.

Those two things just so happen to fuel sales (not to mention that Mega Millions tickets used to be $1).

How Mega Millions works

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

Then, in October, Mega Millions changed the rules.

Now players pick 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.

“Starting jackpots will more than double from $15 million to $40 million, and jackpots will grow faster overall. There will be better odds to win $1 million prizes and higher secondary prizes,” the multi-state lottery said in a release.

How Powerball tweaked the odds to make another massive jackpot

The move is paying out for some players in the short run.

Two tickets sold Tuesday — one in Ohio and the other in Florida — each matched five numbers for a $1 million prize. (One of the two paid out $4 million because of an optional “megaplier,” quadrupling the award.)

That makes six payouts of $1 million since the rule change, a Wednesday release said.

Mega Millions tickets are sold in 44 states, plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But not all of those jurisdictions use a megaplier.

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)

How the formula changed Powerball

It may be too early to determine whether Mega Millions's rule modification has boosted sales, but it is clear that Powerball benefited from a similar change in 2015. Powerball's revenue for fiscal 2016 rose $7 billion from the year before. Revenue had also climbed in 2015 from 2014, by $3 billion, compared with basically no growth from 2013 to 2014.

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

A jackpot-rigging scandal is forgotten as Powerball fever sweeps the United States

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.

A Friday jackpot would be the fourth-highest-ever payout for Mega Millions. (The drawing, in Atlanta, is at 11 p.m. Eastern.)

The most was a $656 million monster pot divided by three winners in 2012.

So someone is getting rich off the lottery. It just probably won't be you.

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