The jackpot in tonight's Powerball drawing has powered past a half-billion dollars, and now stands at a staggering $550 million. Reasonable folks nationwide are suspending their cynicism, blowing money on lottery tickets that they would normally never buy, and daring to dream. Is this a low-risk proposition with a tiny chance of a huge reward, or a just plain silly waste of money? What are one's odds of actually winning that $550 million?
If you live in California, your odds are zero. There is no Powerball in California, but the California State Lottery Commission is expected to adopt regulations this week to allow California to participate in 2013. The only other states not participating in the Powerball drawing are Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Mississippi, Alabama, Alaska and Hawaii.
The rest of the states all have a shot at producing the winner in tonight's $550 million Powerball jackpot. Tickets are $2, or $3 for a Power Play ticket that increases your winnings. It's the second-largest lottery jackpot in US history, behind a $656 million jackpot from a Mega Millions drawing this past March.
According to the Multi-State Lottery Commission, your odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are 1 in 175,223,510. In other words, each ticket has about a 1 in 175 million chance of nailing all six numbers correctly to win the big $550 million jackpot prize.
There are smaller prizes. You've got roughly a 1 in 5 million chance of getting five numbers correct to win a $1 million prize. You've also got a 1 in 650,000 chance of getting four numbers correct to win a $10,000 prize. Prizes go all the way down to $4.
There is a common misconception that your odds improve as more tickets are sold. That is marketing talk, people. The odds of someone winning improve as more tickets are sold, but the odds of you winning decrease with each ticket sold.
Your odds are not affected whether you choose your own numbers, or let the automated ticket system "quick pick" or "easy pick" your numbers. There is no statistical difference between the odds of winning with your own numbers, or winning with randomly assigned numbers.
You should not dismiss numbers that have already won the jackpot. Winning numbers are not retired. It is entirely possible that the five winning numbers will be numbers that have won previous jackpots.
It is true that your odds of winning increase by pooling a large group of people together to buy a massive pile of $2 tickets. It is also true that one's winnings would then decrease by however many ways the pool is being split. And some winners in the group will inevitably sue one another.
The drawing is tonight (Wednesday) at 10:59 p.m. ET / 7:59 p.m. PT. Ticket sales cut off one hour before the drawing. Good luck!