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Mega Millions 
jackpot hits $640 million

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Feeling lucky, McHenry County? Well, join the crowd.

Lottery tickets are flying out of stores after the estimated Mega Millions jackpot swelled to a record $640 million. It has rolled 18 times since a Georgia woman won $72 million in the Jan. 24 drawing.

The next drawing is at 10 p.m. today.

Based on the estimated $540 million heading into today's sales, a winner would get an estimated $19.2 million a year for 26 years or a single payment worth $359 million. With that much money at stake, droves of people are going to gas stations and convenience stores for tickets, each fantasizing about what they would do with the money should they win.

“I get a night’s worth of dreams from this,” Bob Hansen of Lakewood said after buying his ticket.

Hansen already is retired, but a winning ticket surely would pad his retirement, he said. “I’d probably get a little wilder.”

Selling lottery tickets at a Crystal Lake Shell gas station, Tim Wilkins has heard it all. From the poor Joe whose wife washed $50 worth of lottery tickets from his pants, to the man who looked like he didn’t have a dollar to spare shelling out $100 on tickets. And there are the empty promises from lottery hopefuls.

“I hear it all the time, ‘If I win, I’ll take care of you,’ “ said Wilkins, of Lake in the Hills. “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that, I wouldn’t have to work. ... People are just going nuts.”

Some people are satisfied with just one ticket, like Jason Jahnke of Crystal Lake, who picked the numbers of his grandmother’s birthday because “she was always a little gambler,” he said.

Others came in to buy 10, 15, 20 tickets or more. Like Michael Smyk of Marengo, who bought $109 worth of tickets for himself and his office pool.

Turns out matching all six numbers is not so easy. In fact, the odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot are less than the odds you’ll land a date with a supermodel (880,000 to 1), that you’ll be struck by lightning (1 million to 1) or that you’ll be attacked by a shark (11.5 million to 1).

Lottery officials placed the odds of winning Mega Millions at about 1 in 176 million.

On the bright side, the odds of getting the winning numbers is greater than the odds of being hit by a meteorite (20 trillion to 1). But don’t buy that island in the South Pacific or bring home that new Mercedes just yet.

“The probability of winning the lottery is pretty darn infinitesimal,” said Brad Sagarin, a Northern Illinois University psychology professor.

Even if the odds are stacked against you, that doesn’t mean it’s not fun trying, right?

But what is it about a lottery that draws people out in droves to get their hands on a ticket even though the odds of winning are as remote as ever?

Studies indicate there is a disproportionate number of low-income people who play the lottery. Why? Because the idea of getting rich quickly is more than just fun for them; it could be life-changing.

“We don’t always evaluate mathematics and probability in an entirely rational manner,” Sagarin said. “If you walk into any Las Vegas casino, you see this behavior all the time.”

Lottery’s popularity could be linked to what Sagarin called the “gambler’s fallacy.” Take flipping a coin, for example.

Those who subscribe to the gambler’s fallacy falsely think that after flipping a coin a certain number of times, and continually getting a tails, after more flips, it eventually will turn up heads. However, a rational mathematician will tell you the odds are still 50-50 on any one flip of the coin.

“It’s as if saying ‘The universe owes me a heads after so many tails,’ “ Sagarin said. “Or ‘I’ve lost enough, it’s about time that I finally win.’ That sort of thinking can lead people to irrational decisions.”

Should you happen to beat the odds tonight, consider first calling a lawyer and a financial planner before calling family members to let them know you struck it rich, or your boss to tell her you’re kick-starting an early retirement.

“It’s great having a lot of money like that, but there are cons to that, as well,” said Paula Dorion-Gray, president and financial planner for Dorion-Gray Retirement Planning. “It’s a good problem to have, don’t get me wrong. But it’s important to know what you’re doing. You don’t want to be one of the ones who spent it all, or end up having a fight with family members for not including them.”

Don McNay, author of the book “Son of a Son of a Gambler: Winners, Losers and What to Do When You Win the Lottery,” said nine of 10 winners go through their money in five years or less.

“It’s too much, too fast,” McNay said. “Nobody is around them putting the brakes on the situation.”

And finally, there’s the $500 million question. Do you take the cash up front, or accept the annual payments?

“I would be inclined to take all cash up front, but that can be dangerous in the wrong hands,” Dorion-Gray said.

“People always say they’re not going to quit their jobs if they win the lottery, but if you win $500 million, I can pretty much guarantee you’re going to quit,” she said. “But then you have to think about what you are going to spend your time doing.”

On the other hand, she said, “after taxes, that’s probably around $13 million a year. I could probably survive on that.”

Previously, the largest jackpot was $390 million, won by two players in Georgia and New Jersey in March 2007.

• The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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