Today, 35 million Californians get their first chance to buy a ticket on what may become the biggest lottery jackpot ever offered -- but the odds of winning a fortune are the longest ever seen.
California becomes the 12th state to join the Mega Millions lottery game, where a ticket that costs only a dollar could, in time, win $500 million. The odds for this happening, however, are an astronomical one in 175 million, apparently a world record for a lottery.
Until today, the longest odds of winning a lottery were one in 135 million, held by the Mega Millions lottery when it was offered in only 11 states. The odds went up when game officials changed the game slightly.
But it also means the jackpot builds and builds if no one wins, because the game continues, and the original amount is increased as more ticket sales put more money in the pot. Lottery professionals hope that will mean gold.
For example, as of Tuesday, the Mega Millions jackpot was $31 million. Since no one won it, it will go to $42 million when the drawing is held, with California players included, on Friday. If no one wins that, according to the California State Lottery Commission, the jackpot will continue to increase.
"We are hoping to see a payout of half a billion dollars,'' said Catherine Doyle Johnston, a spokeswoman for the California lottery. "We expect total ticket sales in California to increase by $300 million to $500 million a year,'' she said.
The Mega Millions game will not replace the California Lotto game, which will continue operating.
California schools get a portion of the lottery sales from both games. Since the California lottery began in 1985, schools have received nearly $16 billion on sales of $43 billion.
However, expanding the Mega Millions game to California has been controversial. State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, held hearings questioning the Lottery Commission's authority to join a multi-state game.
But the commission got the green light from legal authorities and are going ahead with the plan.
The glitter of all that money meant that people were lining up -- even a day early -- to buy Mega Millions tickets.
"Now, everybody is excited about it,'' said David Spahn, manager of Kavanaugh's Liquors Number One in downtown San Lorenzo. Kavanaugh's is the biggest landmark in the small East Bay town -- the liquor store has sold more jackpot tickets than any other place in Northern California. Its smallest bonanza was $3.8 million in 1989, and the biggest was $28.5 million in 2003.
These days, Spahn said, the 5,000-square-foot store sells more lottery tickets than liquor. "I think we'll sell thousands of tickets'' when the doors open this morning, he said.
"This store is hot,'' a sign in the window says. "The place to play.''
As the jackpot goes up, Spahn expects even more sales -- and he's seen lottery fever break out from time to time. The biggest case was in 2002, when the California Lottery's Super Lotto Plus game sold $104 million in tickets in three days for a jackpot of $193 million. That's 10 times the usual sales for a Super Lotto game.
Sales are always helped by parading winners on television and by advertising campaigns like the current one that offers potential buyers the chance to make a fortune. "The downside,'' say the ads, "is only a buck.''
The stories often are gripping. A janitor in Lowell, Mass., won $294 million in the Mega Millions game last summer. Geraldine Williams, a grandmother of eight, burst into tears after she won. "I don't know what it is to have money,'' she said.
Ralph and Mary Stebbins won $208 million when they bought a Mega Millions game in Port Huron, Mich., this spring. The first thing they did was buy a cow, the second was to buy a vintage 1963 Corvette, and the third was to change their phone number and disappear from public view.
It's an old saying: Money doesn't buy happiness. Jack Whittaker, who won $314.9 million in the multistate Powerball game lottery on Christmas Day 2002, was twice arrested for drunken driving, pleaded no contest to an assault charge and lost $545,000 in cash when somebody broke into his car.
"I wish all of this had never happened,'' his wife told the newspaper in Charleston, W.Va., the couple's home town. "I wish I would have torn the ticket up.''
Not everybody feels that way.
MaryJane Shearer bought a Mega Millions ticket at a grocery store near her Vancouver, Wash., home early in June. On June 6, she found she missed winning $106 million -- but she won $175,000. "It's just wonderful,'' she said Tuesday. "We paid all our bills, and we're going to Disneyland. I know that's corny, but I've never been.
"Would I buy another ticket? Sure. I have some in my pocket now. You never know when lightning is going to strike.''
Prudent people should note that the odds of being hit by lightning twice are one in 9 million. One has a better chance of being stung to death by a bee, hornet or wasp this year than winning the Mega Millions game -- one in 5.332 million for the killer bees compared to one in 175 million for the lottery.
Nonetheless, California lottery officials believe Mega fever is about to break out. "Everything is mega now,'' said Catherine Johnston of the lottery. "They even have Mega M&Ms now. I have a jar on my desk.''
The Rev. Harvey Chinn, a member of the board of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, hopes against Mega fever. He says lotteries prey on the poorest Californians. "They don't sell tickets to wealthy people, or middle-class people," he said Tuesday. "Corporations don't buy tickets. They sell them to desperate people.''
He thinks the deal with Mega Millions is illegal. "We are considering a lawsuit,'' he said.