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Some have derided it as a tax on the poor.

But with as much as half a billion dollars up for grabs, area residents joined the nationwide frenzy ahead of tonight’s Powerball drawing that officials say now has a $550 million jackpot.

Sure, the chances of winning this gargantuan lottery jackpot are just one in 175,223,510.

But that wasn’t stopping countless wishful thinkers from concocting lucky winning number combinations, forming secret office pools and daydreaming for far too long about whether to take the lump sum up-front, which relative will be the first to hit you up for money, and just how much it would cost to buy the Bills.

The draw of a big jackpot is no surprise to area psychology experts.

“It becomes an event,” said Dr. Timothy Osberg, a psychology professor at Niagara University. “A lot more people bet on the Kentucky Derby than go to the OTB for a regular race. When these things are in the news, they kind of want to be a part of it.”

Playing the lottery is one of the most popular kinds of gambling in America, said Dr. John W. Welte, senior research scientist at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions. A study conducted a decade ago found that 66 percent of people who said they had ever gambled played the lottery.

“I think the big thing is it’s just available,” Welte said. “To gamble in a casino, you have to go to the casino. To bet on horse racing, you go to the race track. The lottery is in the 7-Eleven. There are Lotto machines in your laundromat. It’s everywhere.”

Lotteries, and other types of government-run gambling, are big business for states, too, and it’s no surprise they are popular with politicians, Welte said.

“I get money, and I don’t have to raise taxes,” Welte said. “If you’re a politician, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Lottery games are a huge revenue source in New York State. The state’s schools received $2.9 billion in fiscal year 2011-2012 – almost 15 percent of total state aid to local school districts, the New York State Lottery proudly points out in a news release.

But Welte said problems arise when people stop treating the lottery as an occasional recreational activity.

“For the vast majority of people who gamble, it’s more or less harmless,” he said.

Researchers have found that playing the lottery can be a predictor of who will become addicted to gambling. “It wasn’t just people who gamble in casinos,” he said.

Giant jackpots bring out even more people for an array of reasons, said Osberg, the Niagara University professor.

Studies show that while the most frequent lottery players tend to be of lower socioeconomic status, a broader range of people will buy tickets when the jackpot is huge.

There’s also some flawed understanding of odds in winning the lottery.

Big jackpots come from previous drawings coming up without a winner.

People convince themselves that since “no one won, it’s more likely you can win,” Osberg said.

Big jackpots are becoming more common, too, as more states have joined the giant multi-state lotteries. Powerball has 44 participants, including Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands.

The Iowa-based lottery has also made changes to increase jackpots, namely doubling ticket prices to $2.

Since the increase in price in January, Powerball has increased sales revenue by 27 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“We call this uncharted territory,” said Kim Vore, spokeswoman for the Iowa Lottery. “We’ve never had a jackpot this big.” Only Megamillions, which had a jackpot of over $600 million in March, surpasses this one.

One local lottery winner had some advice for anyone lucky enough to win tonight.

“I would tell them to be very careful as far as overspending and make sure they save enough money for taxes,” said the Buffalo nurse who won $1 million three years ago in a scratch-off game.

When she won, the nurse, who asked not to be identified, said she helped someone pay off medical bills. But then she got her tax bill. “It really killed me in the taxes.”

She said what was almost as bad were incessant phone calls from companies wanting to play a part in her finances. “It drives me crazy,” she said.

But at the same time, the extra money has come in handy. She bought a house, with cash. Her car is paid off. And she has some money to spend on her grandchildren.

Today, she said, she’s skipping the Powerball.

“I like the scratch-offs,” she explained. “I like to know right away. That’s how I won in the first place.”

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Top 10 U.S. lottery jackpots

Half a billion dollars up for grabs

1. Mega Millions $656 million Mar. 30, 2012

2. Powerball $550 million* Nov. 28, 2012

3. Mega Millions $390 million Mar. 6, 2007

4. Mega Millions $380 million Jan. 4, 2011

5. Powerball $365 million Feb. 18, 2006

6. The Big Game $363 million May 9, 2000

7. Powerball $340 million Oct. 19, 2005

8. Powerball $337 million Aug. 15, 2012

9. Powerball $336.4 million Feb. 11, 2012

10. Mega Millions $336 million Aug. 28, 2009

*Preliminary estimate

Odds of winning Powerball jackpot: 1 in 175,223,510

Source: www.lotterypost.com and www.powerball.com

email: mbecker@buffnews.com