Hoping against the odds

Gamble: The state urges players to spend `responsible sums' as the lottery jackpot and the chances of winning continue to soar.

April 13, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

The peculiar psychology of the lottery was on full display yesterday as near-record numbers of Marylanders couldn't resist the lure of a $220 million Big Game jackpot, while game officials urged players to refrain from reckless spending.

From the Eastern Shore to Garrett County, Marylanders, joined by vanloads of hopefuls from neighboring states, lined up at ticket outlets for the right to at least dream of being exceedingly lucky - and rich.

But on what was likely to be the game's second-biggest sales day ever in the state, Maryland Lottery Director Buddy Roogow delivered a deliberately mixed message.

"Your chances of getting struck by lightning in the sunshine are greater than hitting the jackpot," Roogow said in an interview. "We want to discourage people from spending a lot of money. When you get a jackpot this size, there is a frenzy."

Roogow said he wants Marylanders to be excited about playing, but that they should be dishing out "responsible sums" for a game that, after all, gives each ticket a 1-in-76 million chance of winning the biggest prize.

But there was evidence yesterday that players inside and outside the state were briskly buying the $1 tickets not only one or two or a time, but - at least occasionally - in bulk.

"The normal person is spending $10, but we've got people spending $60, $100," said Gerald Perry, owner of The Trading Post in Keyser's Ridge, near the West Virginia and Pennsylvania borders. "One person spent $900."

Some of the big spenders represent groups pooling their money, but others seemed to be wagering large sums on their own, Perry said.

The winning numbers in last night's drawing were 6-13-14-17-41-6. Lottery officials should know by this morning whether a Marylander hit the jackpot - or whether there is a winner in any of the other Big Games states: Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia.

At Lexington Market, some Big Game regulars seemed to be playing mind games yesterday as they purchased their tickets, which contain the notation, "The Maryland Lottery encourages responsible play."

"We're giving away too much money. I know that. People are getting ripped off," said retiree James Brooks, 71.

Then Brooks proceeded to buy a few Big Game tickets from a liquor store cashier.

He explained: "It's the gambling fever. "I've got the fever, you've got the fever, we've all got the fever."

Near record sales

While final figures weren't yet available, yesterday's Big Game sales seemed destined to be Maryland's second-highest ever - somewhere below the $7.5 million spent on May 9, 2000, Roogow said.

Marylanders were vying that day for the record Big Game jackpot of $363 million. Yesterday's jackpot, which lottery officials expect to roll over to $300 million if there is no winner, is the second largest.

Across the state, players lined up, sometimes a dozen or more at a time, for a shot at the grand prize.

Kenny Nestor of Houston hadn't even heard of the Big Game, in which six numbered balls are drawn twice a week. He is an audio engineer for the soul artist Aaron Neville, who was performing in Annapolis.

Nestor was drawn in when he saw the numbers "$220 million" on a sign above an Annapolis liquor store cash register.

"They say that if you jumped off a plane and parachuted into New York and knocked on the first door and then saw somebody you knew, that's the chance you have of winning the lottery," Nestor mused.

But he played anyway.

So did Melissa Sipes, 24, a cashier at a Westminster liquor store, where several Big Game customers were waiting for her to unlock the doors yesterday morning.

She put 2 cents toward a Big Game ticket in an employee pool. If that ticket wins, her two cents would yield $4 million dollars, she said.

Bigger jackpots

Maryland's biggest winner to date in the game, played in the state since 1996, was the Poteet family of Millersville, who won $60 million in 1999.

Next month, the Big Game is giving way to a new, nine-state game called Mega Millions with the potential for $500 million jackpots. Then, the odds will be even greater. The dreams, too.

Sun staff writers Maria Blackburn and Ariel Sabar contributed to this story.

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