Powerball mania sweeps through the Berkshires

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PITTSFIELD — Build a homeless shelter. Expand a DJ business. Pay off the mortgages of every family member.

A Berkshires version of "Hey, you never know," was in full swing on Tuesday as local residents entertained visions of how they might use an unprecedented $1.5 billion Powerball jackpot.

And there were a whole lot of players.

Employees at Powerball retailers said "just about everyone" who came in on Tuesday bought at least one 1-in-292-million chance at the prize.

"Whether they walked in intending to or not, you remind people how high it's gotten, and the power of suggestion is huge," said Shane Peaslee, owner of Peaslee's Package & Variety. "There's a reason we're seeing record Powerball sales in Massachusetts right now."

Five white balls numbered 1 to 69 and a red Powerball numbered 1 to 26 are drawn to form the winning digits in the multi-state lottery game. The winning numbers will be picked at 10:59 p.m. Wednesday in the Florida lottery studio in Tallahassee.

Richard Rodriguez, a clerk at North Street convenience store A-Mart, said a flood of people buying Powerball tickets poured in as soon as the store opened.

"I had a guy come in, like 90 years old, [and] buy $200 worth," Rodriguez said. "They all say they're going to give me a fat tip if they get it, so I make sure to spell my name out for the customers. This is who you make the check out to."

Ronnie St. Martin, leaving the store, had just bought himself a handful of tickets, using combinations of his daughters' and granddaughters' birth dates as his numbers.

"Everybody's got a chance, and I do too," St. Martin said. "I'd get a home, a car, a trip to Hawaii and then I'd give most of the rest back. ... I'd open a homeless shelter for people who need it."

He added, "You read about these people hitting it really big then losing it all, so, I'd get myself a few lawyers and financial planners, too."

St. Martin's plans in part aligned with advice to the winner given by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to the Dallas Morning News: get a tax attorney, avoid the lump sum and decline requests for cash from friends and relatives.

Tami Stevens went in the store after St. Martin, buying a few tickets herself.

"I don't usually do this, but what the hell?" she said. "Why would you not throw your hat in at the end of the day?"

As Stevens left, she and the store clerk each exchanged wishes that the other would win.

The lump sum payment was estimated at $930 million before taxes, or a winner could choose a payout over 29 years. According to Wired magazine, the total payout after state and local taxes would fall between $394 million and $524 million.

"The [three-digit] counter can't even tell you how much it is," said Oliver Womble III, a customer and Peaslee's, pointing at the Powerball sign that was maxed out at $999 million.

"They don't have enough numbers," Peaslee said. "Never seen jackpot that high. It's history."

Store owners are sure winners in one regard: they pocket 5 percent of every ticket they sell.

Still, Peaslee was giving himself a chance to hit it big.

"I've been buying them all along," he said. "Matter of fact, I'm going to get another right now."

Daniel Victor put the odds in perspective in a New York Times article, comparing them to writing down the names of every U.S. citizen on individual pieces of paper, putting the slips in a giant bowl, then picking President Barack Obama's name from the bowl.

Victor also said one is 246 times more likely to be struck by lightning this year than to win; an amateur golfer 23,376 times as likely to hit a hole-in-one.

Alex Felix, a 2015 Williams College graduate in math, provided his own take on the odds, shared by statistics professor Richard De Veaux.

Felix applied the current Powerball figures to the "Kelly criterion" for calculating maximum bets based on expected returns. Based on the astronomical odds, he said the only acceptable bet was impossibly low — "in the ballpark of 10 to the negative 11th," or an exponentially tiny fraction of one cent.

Nevertheless, Felix concludes, "I'm buying a ticket anyway."

But as of Tuesday, the game had generated $12.5 million and counting for Massachusetts cities and towns, which receive 42 percent of all the money from Powerball tickets sold in the state.

"We're really in unprecedented territory here," Christian Teja of the Massachusetts State Lottery told Boston radio station WBUR.

Last Thursday, a player in Plymouth won $1 million by hitting every number except the Powerball.

"Forget the whole lottery, I wish they'd just disburse it," Womble said. "But if they did that, we'd all only end up with $4 and change."

He added, "The only thing I'd do is invest big in my DJ business. I'd probably stay working at Wendy's if I won, lead a really low-key life."

Peaslee laughed.

"Not me; I'd take a lifelong vacation."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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