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Los Angeles Times, Published March 29 2012

Mega Millions players feeling lucky despite odds of 1 in 176 million

LOS ANGELES - The borrowed pickup truck, a crack inching its way across the windshield, lumbered into the parking lot off Sunset Boulevard a little before noon on Thursday. Diana Delmuro parked illegally, grabbed her purse and dashed inside Silversun Liquor. She slapped a crinkled dollar bill on the counter.

“Mega!” she said with a broad smile. “And make it a lucky one.”

It's been a rough spell for Delmuro, 58, who lost her job a year ago and was diagnosed recently with diabetes. But through it all, she said, “God's been good to me.” And there have been suggestions of fresh wind in her sails - she lost 20 pounds and won a small civil court case that had been hanging over her head. So the odds of winning today's $540-million Mega Millions jackpot - 1 in 176 million, give or take, at the time she bought in - sounded just fine.

“I feel good about it,” she said, clutching her ticket. “Very, very good.”

Winning the lottery, a simple, cheap transaction that can effectively end your first life and grant you a second, has always been such a farfetched proposition that the very notion has become synonymous with a miracle. You are 19 times as likely to be struck by lightning twice, 33 times as likely to be killed in the next year by bees and 40 times as likely to be dealt five blackjacks in a row as you are to win Mega Millions.

But then the jackpot for today's Mega Millions draw vaulted past half a billion dollars, making it the largest lottery jackpot in world history and drawing in even the skeptical and the frugal.

Against the backdrop of a stubbornly sluggish economy, the lottery drawing has captivated many.

“It's so high - I mean, that's astronomical,” said Charlie Blair, 70, a retired mechanical engineer. Blair had never played the lottery until he heard about the record payout, and he headed to a gas station near his Koreatown apartment to buy a single ticket. He said he would keep quiet if he won - but that might be hard, considering everyone around him has lottery on the brain.

“My girlfriend, my ex-wife, my bookkeeper - it's all they're talking about,” he said. “My ex-wife said, ‘If you hit it, don't forget me.’”

Helen Mendoza, 27, was laid off recently as a grocery store cashier. Winning, she said, would allow her family of four to trade in their one-bedroom apartment in Koreatown for a three-bedroom house, with plenty left to send food and clothing to needy neighbors in her native Guatemala.

“A lot of people are struggling, so I don't want a mansion,” said Mendoza, who used her anniversary and her children's birth dates as her lucky numbers. “I want to help other people.”

According to the California Lottery, the chances of winning Mega Millions is 1 in about 176 million.

Statistician Mike Orkin, the author of “What Are the Odds? Chances in Everyday Life,” puts it another way.

If you have one friend in Canada, put the name of every person in Canada in a hat and pick one, you are five times as likely to pick your friend's name as you are to win the jackpot with a single ticket. Facing these odds, if you bought 50 tickets each week, you'd win - sometime before the year 70012.

None of that seems to have had any effect on lottery mania. Not this time. The sheer girth of the theoretical winnings, in many players’ eyes, made the draw feel less like an impossibility and more like a grand equalizer - as in, someone's got to win, so why not me?

So they bought, and bought, and bought, spanning the spectrum of class and geography, some a dollar at a time, others in massive pools organized in offices and churches. They bought in 42 states plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. They bought by the bushel in California - 283 million tickets since the run-up began Jan. 25. The jackpot keeps growing until there is a winner. They stood in line for two hours to buy at Bluebird Liquor in Hawthorne, which has a reputation as a lucky vendor.

And when they bought, many did it with a surprising air of confidence.

“I've already spent the money in my head, 300 times,” said Ryan King, 33, who lives in San Bernardino and bought his ticket during a break on a Silver Lake construction site.

Jeffrey Rodriguez, 35, a union plumber, helped install the pipes at the Ritz-Carlton in Los Angeles but hasn't been called to a job since because of the economy - a two-year drought. But Rodriguez felt secure enough with his ticket that he had not only planned how to spend his winnings - paying bills, buying a house and preparing for the birth of his son - but had begun guarding himself against poachers and swindlers.

“Money changes a lot,” he said. “You start making friends you didn't know you had. But I know who is who.”

A lottery of this size isn't just for the 99 percent; stores in Beverly Hills were bustling too.

Michael Steinberg pulled up to a gas station Thursday in a gleaming ebony Porsche Carrera, walked inside and started filling out Mega Millions lottery tickets. The 71-year-old contractor said his luxury car and 90210 ZIP Code don't separate him from the less fortunate when it comes to a half-billion-dollar payday.

“I'd like you to show me somebody who can't make use of $540 million,” Steinberg said. “And not everyone who lives in Beverly Hills is a millionaire.”

Steinberg, who had designs on building a house, buying a Ferrari, giving money to his family and donating money to 12-step programs, purchased $100 worth of tickets, two of them using numbers given to him by his girlfriend.

“We'll split the winnings. But at one point my greed got the better of me and I thought: ‘Should we really partner up?’” he said.

Back at Silversun Liquor in Silver Lake, it was a dizzying day for manager Kuldip Mandeir, who greets everyone who approaches the register the same way: “Hello, friend.”

Mandeir, who moved from his native Punjab, India, to Los Angeles nine years ago to seek new opportunities, had been pressed into service by customers as a lucky charm, a shrink and a soothsayer. Lottery players prayed with him, told him about their retirement plans and debated which charities to help. Some simply told him that once they won, he'd never see them again.

Mandeir played along gamely, wishing each buyer luck and assuring them that they were doing the right thing in the face of overwhelming odds. After all, he said: “You have to play to win. When you don't do anything, how can you get something?”

Not everyone bought into the logic.

“I just don't care,” said Marvin Ruiz, 34, a Los Angeles auto parts salesman. “I don't make a lot of money but I'm OK with the way I live. It's more important to work hard than dream of something you'll never get.”