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Mega Millions Jackpot Swells To $636 Million

A woman picks her Mega Millions lottery numbers at a shop in New York's Penn Station on Tuesday. The Mega Millions jackpot soared to $636 million on Monday, still short of the $656 million U.S. record set in a March 2012 drawing.

Update at 12:43 p.m.

The Mega Millions jackpot is now the second-highest lottery jackpot in U.S. history: It swelled to about $636 million, on the back of strong ticket sales ahead of the drawing at 11 p.m. Tuesday.

On Monday, lottery officials estimated that the jackpot had risen to $586 million. And there could be a Christmas miracle: The jackpot could reach a seemingly impossible $1 billion if no one wins by Dec. 24. That would shatter the record of $656 million, set in a March 2012 Mega Millions drawing.

There are roughly 259 million possible number combinations — and between 65 percent and 70 percent will be in play when the numbers are drawn. As this story notes, the odds of winning are astronomical

"People don't really understand probabilities at all," George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, tells The Associated Press. "Once you have a bunch of zeroes, it doesn't matter how many you have — 1 in 10,000, 1 in a million or 1 in a billion. ... People do understand the meaning of the word 'largest.' They overact to one dimension and underreact to the other."

Still, that doesn't deter would-be millionaires (or is it billionaires?).

"I think it's ridiculous, but you have to dream big," Drew Gentsch, a Des Moines, Iowa, attorney who bought a ticket Monday, told the AP. "The odds of winning are so low, there's no real reason to play. But it's fun to do so once in a while."

The news agency adds:

"The large Mega Millions prize is the product of a major game revamp in October that dramatically lowered the odds of winning the jackpot. If a winner isn't selected Tuesday night and it rolls over past the next drawing scheduled Friday night, Otto predicts the jackpot will reach $1 billion — an unheard of amount for Mega Millions or Powerball, the nation's two main lottery games."

A winner Tuesday could either take the $636 million prize over a 30-year period or take a lower, lump-sum payment.

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