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Mega Millions Fever Sweeps Eastern Iowa

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Did you buy a Mega Millions lottery ticket this week?

Millions of people in Iowa and around the country are expected to do just that before the Friday evening drawing for what will be the world's biggest-ever jackpot prize.

The Mega Millions game offered in Iowa and more than 40 other states has a jackpot now estimated at $540 million. No one has hit the numbers for that lotto drawing since January 24th. And reports from around the country show strong signs of "lotto fever" taking hold.

The odds of one person winning the $540 million prize are estimated at 1 in 176,000,000. If a single winner took the lump sum cash payment instead of the annuity payment, that would amount to an estimated $390 million. That's also a world record

But some of the buyers on Thursday in Cedar Rapids said if you're going to take a chance playing the lottery, you might as well aim for the biggest prize ever.

Amanda Hackbarth described herself as an "infrequent" player. But this giant jackpot was one of those times.

"Oh absolutely," Hackbarth said adding "I just saw a friend at Hy-Vee and she said 'don't forget your lottery ticket on the way out.' So I absolutely think it brings more players out."

Two Hy-Vee stores in Cedar Rapids certainly know how to handle a lot of lottery sales. The store at 20 Wilson Ave. SW recorded more Iowa lottery sales in fiscal year 2011 than any other store in the state. The Hy-Vee at 1843 Johnson Ave. NW is right behind in second place.

Store managers said when big bucks are at stake, regular players spend more, new players suddenly appear and lottery officials just marvel at all the excitement.

Iowa Lottery CEO Terry Rich said the difference between jackpots in the early days of the lottery and now is immense.

"In the old days, five million dollars would bring lines to our stores," Rich said. "Today, once it hits $100-million people start getting excited. Record jackpots—never before jackpots—it does bring people out."

By comparison, the biggest Mega Millions jackpot before this week was $390 million. The more familiar Iowa Powerball topped out at $365 million in 2006.

As always, lottery officials say enjoy the frenzy, but don't go crazy. Maureen Hunt, who described herself as a weekly player, already took that advice to heart.

"I'm buying five extra picks on computer Mega Bucks. Other than that, I still play my own numbers," Hunt said.

Iowa Lottery officials said when jackpots grow to this large the lottery sees a lot more "pool" players who combine money and plan to share winnings. The lottery reminds those players to write down the rules for group play and know who's in or out before the drawing.

Incidentally, the Iowa Lottery put the giant prize in perspective by imaging an Iowa winner decided to share the prize with every person in the state. That's 3.06 million people. If that happened, every man, woman and child would receive $176. Lottery officials, needless to say, don't expect that to happen.

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