Steinberg: Surrendering to Powerball

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Columnist Neil Steinberg didn’t win the Powerball lottery Saturday night. Nobody did. | Getty Images

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I didn’t win the Powerball lottery Saturday night.

Neither did you. Nobody did.

Shocking, I know, because, well, we had our hopes, didn’t we?

I’m still surprised that I played, twice. So $4 of that $1.3 billion being given away, maybe, Wednesday is mine.

Or was.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit I played. Mr. Logic. Mr. Rationality. Voluntarily paying the Stupid Tax. It’s almost as bad as visiting a palmist.

Well, like any sinner, I have my excuses.

The first time was a few weeks ago, and a machine made me do it. I popped into the 7-Eleven on Shermer Road to buy a Sun-Times — my wife had taken ours to work. There was a new machine set up by the doughnut case. Designed, no doubt, to relieve the endless pressure on the clerk who has to sell both tickets and Slurpees. I had $2; why not try out the machine? It worked.


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The odds of winning are astronomical. You have to pick five correct numbers between one and 69, and then a red “Powerball” number between one and 26. The odds, according to Powerball, are one in 292 million.

How to grasp that? I can’t even imagine 200 dots. Since there are 318 million people in the United States, the odds of winning Powerball are slightly better than the odds of picking one person at random from the entire United States population and that person being Barack Obama. Or put another way: Had you bought all the Powerball tickets sold in 44 states over the past two months, you’d have still lost.

Long odds. But if you don’t play, you can’t win. Not only didn’t I win, but I didn’t hit any of the five numbers in two tries. Those chances were not one in hundreds of millions, but 10/69, or about the same odds of rolling a six with one die. A whisper of how long those odds really are.

No Powerball winner, so jackpot up to $1.3 billion

Then Friday, I’m trucking through the grand colonnade at the Civic Opera House, heading for the train. The convenience store there had a hand-lettered sign: “Jackpot $800 million” in the window. I veered inside.

This time I felt a little dumber. Huge jackpots flush out players. Fifty million dollars isn’t worth getting off the couch for, but $800 million? Hoo-boy! Now you’re talking!

I tucked the ticket away. The gears started to turn. If I won that money, why I would . . . get a new driveway for the house. Ours is dissolving into gravel. And new siding — ours is fading, piebald. Our house looks like the stage set for a high school production of “Tobacco Road.” The fact that the neighbors don’t bring it up during every conversation is a testament to their big-heartedness.

That did surprise me. A new driveway. Siding. These are my dreams of avarice at 55? Not foundations to help the poor, nor luxury, nor adventure. No sanctuary for wayward elephants in Nepal. A new driveway. Aluminum siding. That’s worse than the fishing boat cliches customers cough up when quizzed as they stand in line to buy tickets.

Luckily, I got bailed out Saturday morning. I went to pick up the dry cleaning, and fell into conversation about Powerball with Matt, the dry cleaner. “Well, I hope somebody from Illinois wins,” he said, which seemed a warm and generous sentiment.

And then I was sitting with my younger kid, the college freshman. I mentioned I had bought a ticket to Saturday’s drawing, just to make conversation. And it worked. He snapped at the bait. Turns out, he bought a ticket too — it’s legal to play lotteries in Illinois if you’re 18 or older. We talked about what we’d do if we won. Would he stay in school? We discussed the tax ramifications. Why someone couldn’t just buy 292 million tickets and guarantee a $500 million profit.

By Saturday night I felt I had gotten my two bucks worth, between being reminded of the paltriness of my dreams — note to self: find better dreams — the conversation in the dry cleaners and spurring taciturn youth to actually speak. I’m not running out to buy another ticket. The odds of being killed on the way are better, or at least comparable, to the odds of winning once you get there. But I’ve also decided that buying lottery tickets is one of those normal activities, like walking a dog, that I resisted for years for reasons that are not entirely valid. If I’m passing a store, and there’s no line, and I’ve got two bucks handy. Well, there are worse things to spend your money on.

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