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Mega Millions fever will peak Friday with $540-million drawing

March 30, 2012 |  5:15 am

Mega Millions lines

The record-setting $540-million Mega Millions jackpot was generating big business for retailers across California as lottery fever set in.

The drawing is Friday evening. And if history is any indication, lines should be forming at some stores throughout the day.

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

PHOTOS: Mega Millions fever

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.

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 Friday’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.”

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.


 Record Mega Millions jackpot draws players, lines 

Mega Millions jackpot at $500 million and counting

What to do if you win the Mega Millions lottery jackpot

-- Corina Knoll, Scott Gold, Matt Stevens and Anna Gorman

Photo: With the line stretching around the block, hundreds of people waited for more than two hours Thursday to buy Mega Millions tickets at Bluebird Liquor store in Hawthorne. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images