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December 17th, 2013
06:38 PM ET

Mega Millions: What are the odds?

(CNN) - It's Mega Millions day, time to pull out those $1 bills from your wallet for a chance to win $636 million.

But the lottery changed its rules in October, increasing the pool of numbers players have to choose from. Before then, odds were 1 in 176 million of winning; now odds are 1 in 259 million. You have a better chance of getting struck by lightning, getting killed by a vending machine, dating a supermodel, or spotting a UFO. In fact, just marry a millionaire, the odds are better.

While Mega Millions won't admit it, they changed the rules to compete with the Power Ball lottery, which consistently runs larger jackpots, says Los Angeles Times consumer columnist David Lazarus.

"The guys at the Mega Millions had jackpot envy, and wanted to find a way to get into the hundreds of millions of dollars of jackpots," said Lazarus.

The rules change decreased the odds of winning, resulting in "bigger jackpots, more players and fewer winners," said Lazarus.

Mega Millions did not make this change on the sly, they issued a press release about the new rules.

"But how many people are reading lottery press releases out there?" said Lazarus.

The lottery didn't trumpet the rules change, because they didn't want to deter players from buying tickets, says Lazarus.

"A lot of people would have correctly said, 'Wait a minute, I'm going to pay the same dollar for this thing, and I'm going to have astronomically worse chances of winning?' That doesn't sound like a really good deal," said Lazarus.

The move from individual lottos to giant, multiple-state lotteries means fewer people are winning every year.

"They changed this thing in October, and since then, not one jackpot winner," says Lazarus. "That tells the whole story right here."

"The higher the jackpot goes, the more people who will spill in. Talk about a bit of a scam," said Lazarus.

Players' overall chances of winning a prize are 1 in 15, even if it's just winning that buck back. There is also a 1 in 18 million chance at winning $1 million, nine people did that last Friday.

"If I were to tell people don't leave your house today because there's a chance you will be murdered, you would laugh that off," said Lazarus.

But there is actually a 1 in 19,000 chance of being murdered on any given day, much higher than the odds of winning $1 million playing Mega Millions.

"So your chances of getting greased as you go about your business are so much better than actually winning this lottery," said Lazarus.

The reality of the odds "speaks to the element of foolish optimism" that surrounds Mega Millions, says Lazarus. That is, when presented with good news, like a chance at half a billion dollars, people are willing to chance it.

"If I tell you there's a much, much better chance you are going to be murdered, "Sopranos" style, you'll go, 'No, there's not,'" said Lazarus.

Of all the bizarre situations that are more likely to happen than winning the lottery, Lazarus says his favorite deals with aviation.

"You actually have a better chance of some errant piece of machinery falling off a passing airplane and bonking you in the head, than you do of winning the lottery," said Lazarus. "I don't know a single person that's ever happened to."

But after all this nay saying, will Lazarus buy a ticket?

"What am I, a schmuck? As soon as we're done here I'm going to go out and buy one."

The Mega Millions drawing takes place Tuesday night at 11 p.m. ET. If no one wins tonight, the jackpot for Friday's drawing will start at $950 million.

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