The games people play

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Lottery bibles
Sneaky Pete’s got some tips

The Virginia Lottery can be played in so many wonderful ways. At the top of the heap is a little game called Mega Millions, which recently topped out with a $270 million jackpot. “With more people playing than any other multi-state game in the U.S., jackpots roll to higher levels at a faster rate,” the official website says. Virginia is one of 12 states that contribute to the wealth but somebody from B.F.E., Georgia, won the last one. Mega Millions gives you nine ways to win eight different prizes. Jackpots start at $12 million and have gone to more than $300 million. Second prize is a cool $250,000. To play, choose your own numbers on a play slip or go for Easy Pick and let the computer choose your numbers—each play costs $1 and you have a 1 in 175,711,536 chance of winning. On average, 35 percent of all Mega Millions ticket sales go to support government services in the member states. Approximately 50 percent of every dollar wagered goes back to the players as prizes.

The bottom-feeders of the lottery are the more than 70 different types of “scratchers,” and they are easy to come by. Any minimart worth its salt has an automatic scratcher machine by the door—Tom Thumb has two by the door, two on the rear wall—and they are also available at the counter. “With several different types of play action, Scratchers are bound to satisfy almost everybody,” says the state lotto site. They range in price from $1 to $20. My favorite is the Cash Flurries Doubler, which depicts dollar bills floating across a wintry blue background. The top prize is $1,000. The odds of winning that prize are 1 in 510,000. The chances of winning any amount are one in four. The most I have won is $8.

In between these two groups are multiple games, including two of the most popular, Pick 3 and Pick 4. After playing Pick 3 on numerous occasions, I have decided that Cale Elementary school teacher Chris Menke has the best plan. For a year straight, she played the same number—her birthday, July 13, or 7-1-3—every day. Within three weeks of starting, she hit a large sum of money, almost $700. After that, Menke never won more than a piddly amount, maybe 40 bucks here or there; then as the year ended she won big again, hitting “exact” order. “I won almost $670 and then I quit,” she says. “The day I picked that money up was the day I ended. I figured one entire year was enough time to really get an idea, and it’s not set up for you to win a lot of money.”

Menke got out while she was ahead, which is unusual, especially if you believe the statistical evidence. Take the state’s Win for Life game. For $1, players pick six numbers from a single set of 42 for a chance at a $1,000 a week for life. Sounds nice but the chances of you actually matching all six numbers are one in 5,245,786. Even the possibility of winning a measly $200 is only one in a thousand.

Nevertheless, Jasper Ingram—a Chesapeake mailman—won the top prize on February 29. “I just couldn’t believe it. I’ve got the winning ticket!” he told Virginia lottery officials. “When I called my daughter to tell her, I was shaking like a leaf.” Mr. Ingram became the 18th Virginia Lottery player to win the top prize in Win For Life since the game began in February 2006.

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