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$586 Million Mega Millions Jackpot In Play

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 $586 million on Monday, still short of the $656 million U.S. record set in a March 2012 drawing.

Will there be a pre-Christmas miracle?

The Mega Millions jackpot has climbed to $586 million -- and it could reach a seemingly impossible $1 billion if no one wins by Dec. 24.

Paula Otto, head of the Virginia Lottery and lead director for Mega Millions, said ticket sales are ahead of projections for Tuesday's 11 p.m. drawing. That raises the likelihood the jackpot could 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."

The $586 million jackpot is the fourth-highest in U.S. history. A winner Tuesday could either take the money over a 30-year period or take a lump-sum payment of $316 million.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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