(USA TODAY) -- The Mega Millions lottery jackpot rose to $636 million Tuesday, just $20 million short of the U.S. record.
The one-time cash payout for tonight's jackpot: a whopping $341.2 million, according to Virginia Lottery spokesman John Hagerty.
There are about 259 million number combinations in play for what has exploded into the second-largest prize ever, but long odds were not deterring long lines at lottery ticket outlets.
"Even though the odds are against you, it's just the excitement of, 'Hey, I might wake up one day and be a millionaire,' " says Chris Scales, 31, of Nashville. The hot dog vendor says he brings in about $35,000 a year "if I really hustle."
Scales said he usually reserves his lottery playing for jackpots of at least $40 million. Tonight, count him in.
The incredibly remote odds don't really sink in for people, says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has researched the motives underlying lottery ticket purchases.
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"People don't really understand probabilities at all," he says. "Once you have a bunch of zeroes, it doesn't matter how many you have - one in 10,000, one in a million or one in a billion. ... People do understand the meaning of the word 'largest.' They overreact to one dimension and underreact to the other."
Apparently so. The record $656 million Mega Millions jackpot in 2012 sold 26 million tickets an hour the day of the March 30 drawing, says Multi-State Lottery Association director Chuck Strutt.
"They're buying like crazy," Ahmed Karim, the owner of a New Brunswick 7-11, told nj.com.
The boom in interest also promises a financial windfall to state lottery programs. The Iowa Lottery's sales for the past five months have totaled about $129 million, down 5.8% from a year ago. "Timing is everything. This month we'll see the opposite as the Mega Millions' run produces some added sales," Iowa Lottery Chief Executive Officer Terry Rich said.
A $1 billion Christmas Eve jackpot could end up under some lucky winner's tree if no one hits the jackpot tonight or Friday night. The jackpot - up more than $160 million since hitting $425 million Dec. 13 - has rolled over 21 straight times since Oct. 4, when it was a relatively pocket-change $12 million.
Mega Millions jackpots are likely to continue swelling because lottery officials boosted their potential payouts.
Originally, customers chose five numbers from 1-56 and one number from 1-46. The new structure has customers choosing five numbers from 1-75 and one number from 1-15. The change raised the odds of hitting a winner to 1 in 259 million from 1 in 176 million.
Longtime lottery watcher Gail Howard says that with the odds of hitting the jackpot so small, ticket buyers should buy no more than one.
"Your odds are not going to improve that much if you buy 1 ticket or 1,000,'' says Howard, author of Lottery Master Guide. "I also think you should pick your own numbers rather than let a (point of sale) computer do it."
Contributing: The Des Moines Register; Associated Press