SOUTH PORTLAND — If Casey Pike wins $900 million in the Powerball drawing Saturday night, she can thank the guy in front of her at Broadway Variety, the guy who took an awfully long time figuring out his lucky numbers.

“He was taking a long time with his numbers, and I heard everybody talking about it, and I started to think maybe I’d buy a ticket,” Pike, an insurance worker who had never bought a Powerball ticket before, said Friday morning. “I’ve won 20 bucks on a scratch ticket before, but I’ve never thought about something like this.”

People all across Maine have Powerball on the brain this week, after days of seeing flashing signs in convenience stores and at supermarkets announcing the biggest jackpot ever in the 23-year history of Powerball, a collaboration of 36 different lottery agencies in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

Angela Copeland, who was selling Powerball tickets at a brisk pace Friday at Broadway Variety, sees the mania partly as the result of peer pressure. People see the signs, read the stories, hear the talk, and don’t want to be left out. It’s only two bucks, what the heck.

Psychologically speaking, this kind of Powerball peer pressure can be classified as “behavioral contagion,” said Bill Thornton, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern Maine who studies social behavior.

“It’s similar to when someone says they smell something, then you begin to smell it. You see everyone else buying these tickets and you say ‘what the hell, if everyone else is getting on this bandwagon I don’t want to miss it,’ ” said Thornton.

There is psychological power in the sheer dollar amount of the jackpot, too, which was at $700 million Thursday and had grown to $900 million by Saturday. It might top $1 billion at this rate.

“If it was the fourth largest jackpot, at something like $400 million, that would be ho-hum. But this is THE largest and that gets people’s attention,” Thornton said.

Powerball jackpots always start at $40 million and grow until someone wins. Drawings are Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10:59 p.m. Tickets are sold until 9:50 p.m.

Partly because he understands how the mind can play tricks, Thornton has not bought himself a ticket. He also has heard that there is only a one in 292 million chance of winning.

So a winner from Maine would be unlikely. In fact, it would be unprecedented. A winning Powerball jackpot ticket has never been sold in Maine, according to the Maine State Lottery. Several Mainers have won big cash prizes, though. In May, the Maine lottery identified Theodore Drake of Bath as a $2 million winner.

The second prize in Powerball is $2 million, if you pay an extra $1 for the “Power Play” option. That allows you to double your “Match 5” winning number, according to the Powerball website. That means, several store clerks said Friday, that if you pick five of the six numbers correctly – all but the Powerball number – you win $2 million. If you don’t pay the extra $1 for the “Power Play” option, you would win a measly $1 million for five correct numbers.

For regular players, the above jumble of rules is second nature. But for the droves of first-time Powerball players out this past week, the rules are basically like learning Latin.

Pike, for example, didn’t know what kind of ticket she bought. She trusted the clerk, who gave her a $2 ticket, with numbers automatically picked by the computer. MJ Crace of Wells did the same thing at her neighborhood Cumberland Farms, handing the manager a $20 bill and hoping for the best. She had never played Powerball.

She bought seven tickets and decided to write a child or grandchild’s name on each one. So if that ticket wins, that’s who she’ll “treat” to something extra special.

“I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about what to do with the money, but wouldn’t that be a game changer?” said Crace, who works for an investment group and is the volunteer coordinator for the town of Wells. “I do a lot of volunteering, and I think about all the lives I could touch with that kind of money.”

Of course, an $900 million jackpot is not really 900 million dollars. The winner can get the $900 million paid out over 30 years, but a big chunk would go toward taxes. Or a winner can take a one-time lump-sum payment of about $496 million, and probably lose nearly half of that to taxes, experts estimate.

Either way, it’s still enough to get excited about. And it’s still enough to split. Hillary Cooledge at Anania’s store in South Portland said her Powerball business “quadrupled” to about 100 tickets Thursday after nobody won it Wednesday. Several sales were made to people buying for a group of co-workers. She said one group spent $200 on tickets.

At Broadway One-Stop, also in South Portland, Alicia Hammond said she had sold Powerball tickets to the same couple, a man and woman who just moved to the area, every night this week.

“They buy one every day. They seem so excited about it,” she said.

Steve Bussone, a 59-year-old postal worker, said he only buys Powerball tickets when the jackpot gets really big. After buying seven tickets at Broadway Variety on Friday morning, he said he’d love to use the money to help out his grown children. He’d also like to travel and to work less.

But he said he didn’t want to play the wish list game yet, not until he actually had money to make the wishes come true.

At the moment he bought his tickets, he was content to play, to be in the hunt for something big.

“I guess it’s the amount, and how elusive it is,” said Bussone.

 


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