MADISON, Wis. – The Powerball jackpot has reached a record estimated high of $1.6 billion, leading longtime players and first-timers alike to flock to buy tickets ahead of Saturday night's drawing.
At Woodman's Markets in Madison, Wisconsin, sisters Christy Bemis and Cherrie Spencer were among the dozens of weekend shoppers who paid for their groceries and loaded up carts before joining the line at the lottery counter to purchase their shot at the prize.
They said they almost never buy lottery tickets, but they were lured in by the size of the jackpot.
“My $2 has just as good a chance of winning as anyone else's $2,” said Spencer.
The counter was one of the busiest areas of the supermarket — so busy that employees set up stanchions to guide the queue. Like most of the players in line, Jim Olson, 78, was buying Quick Picks, randomly generated Powerball numbers, but he doesn't always.
Olson said he has typically bought a Powerball ticket once every drawing “virtually since they started.” When he picks his own numbers, there's no rhyme or reason to how he does it: “They just come to you. I can't explain it."
Olson's biggest win to date? $300 about 20 years ago, he said.
It speaks to the extremely long odds of winning the jackpot — about 1 in 292.2 million.
Still, the chance of pocketing $782.4 million (the value of the cash option before taxes) has been enough to bring people flooding across state lines for a chance to play. Winners of massive jackpots almost always opt for cash, but some financial experts say the annuity option, which is paid out over a 30-year term, might be a safer bet.
Many players do whatever they can to try to tip the odds in their favor. Unlike the weekend shoppers in Madison, not everyone buys their tickets at the most convenient location.
In Los Angeles, a liquor store known for producing several winning tickets over the years gives superstitious players hope that they could be the next to strike it rich.
Hector Solis, 35, has been coming to Bluebird Liquor to buy lottery tickets ever since he was a kid tagging along with his parents. ““Bluebird’s, you know, pretty much a hotspot that we know of,” he said.
On Saturday, Solis purchased $140 worth of tickets on behalf of a group of 27 coworkers. He said he uses specific numbers, like the birthdays of family members he considers to have particularly good luck.
Al Adams was also at the liquor store to buy his tickets. An experienced drug and alcohol counselor, Adams said he believes in giving back. If he were to win, he said he would give some of the money to his favorite charity for homeless and incarcerated people. “I'd use the rest to disappear somewhere,” Adams said. He also cautioned players to “play responsibly.”
Kianah Bowman had a different message for lottery players. The 24-year-old organizer used Bluebird Liquor's long lines as a platform for petitioning against high oil and gas prices — an issue she hopes to see on a ballot referendum in California. She was outside the liquor store for several days, gathering signatures from hundreds of players.
Bowman also said she plans to buy a few tickets for herself.
Back in Madison, Djuan Davis was manning the lottery counter at Pick 'n Save on Saturday morning, taking cash and handing out tickets to more weekend shoppers. “Typically there’s a lot of sales on Saturdays,” he said.
With a record-breaking jackpot, business has picked up. Davis said he's also seen a recent increase in players purchasing tickets online.
As customers arrived at the counter, Davis would ask how he could help them. Almost every one answered the same: Powerball tickets.
“Every time, it’s always that one,” Davis said.
It was Arpad Jakab's first time buying Powerball tickets. As Davis sold him four Quick Pick tickets, Jakab, a retired utility worker, said he probably wouldn't buy them again unless there was another record jackpot.
“It was just really high," said Jakab. “Might as well join the insanity.”