Powerball players strategize, socialize, and hope

Powerball tickets were on sale at the Crimson Corner in Harvard Square.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
Powerball tickets were on sale at the Crimson Corner in Harvard Square.

Joe Federico is something of a lottery regular. He plays a couple times a week on average, nothing too outrageous. As he describes it, “Throw in 10 dollars, make four.”

But on the eve of Saturday’s historic Powerball drawing, the Saugus resident was beginning to feel the magnitude of the moment.

“It gets the heart pumping,” Federico said Friday, as he stopped by Lincoln Ave. Market in his hometown to buy tickets. “It’s like New Year’s Eve, watching the ball drop.”


As the Powerball lottery prize ballooned to $800 million Friday — shattering the previous US lottery record-high of $656 million in 2012 — countless gamblers descended upon local convenience stores to hand over $2 in exchange for the minuscule hope that they might be rewarded with a life-altering sum of money.

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Forget the slender odds, which the Multi-State Lottery Association puts at 1 in 292.2 million. Earlier in the week, according to a Massachusetts lottery official, Powerball tickets were selling at a clip of 8,500 per minute, and convenience store employees across the area reported an influx of customers who, while not regular lottery participants, had been lured by the prospect of such a breathtaking pot.

In real terms, that pot isn’t quite as astonishing as it seems (though it’s still pretty astonishing). After taxes, a winner in Massachusetts would receive roughly $560 million if they opted for an annual, 30-year payout, according to a state lottery spokesperson, while someone taking the lump sum would get $347.2 million.

But for many ticket buyers, the money was almost beside the point. This was an event, after all, a real-time game that allowed them, in some small way, to be a part of something historically significant.

“The number one reason people buy is to feel like part of something,” said Kit Yarrow, a professor emerita of psychology at Golden Gate University, in San Francisco. “It inspires a lot of fantasy and conversation.


“Even people who don’t usually buy lottery tickets — who know their chances of winning are none — participate because it feels like a national event.”

At the same time, buying a ticket — and fantasizing about such an enormous windfall — can serve as a shared sense of connection.

“Look, it’s been a bad economic year all around and looks like it’s getting worse in 2016,” said Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University and a former president of the American Psychological Association. “There is a backdrop of economic pessimism, and so this is a kind of a hopefulness breakout. You just think, ‘I’m going to try it.’ ”

He added: “You can talk about it and complain. It gives us conversation piece. It has a social tag on it.”

For the past week or so, Bernadette Scutti and her co-workers at Harvard University Health Services have been working diligently — strategizing, analyzing, trying to determine the best and most efficient methods possible to approach the task at hand.


Typical office business? Nah. Powerball.

“I said to one of the nurse practitioners, I’m going to go to a store in Arlington, because they’ve had [past winners],” said Scutti, the co-organizer of an office pool who had been in charge of purchasing the group’s tickets.

At Out of Town News, the Harvard Square staple, Amit Basnet stood behind the counter Thursday as customers streamed in and out, buying cigarettes and newspapers and, yes, Powerball tickets. Lots and lots of Powerball tickets.

Basnet estimated that 25 to 30 percent of the day’s customers had stopped in solely to play Powerball, and he’d noticed a lot of new faces in addition to the regulars who typically fill the small shop.

“Why not?” he responded, when asked what he thought drew people to a game that offered so little hope of success. “Let’s take a chance.”

Ron LeBlanc of Melrose, who said he’s holding 10 Powerball tickets, cited the appeal of being part of something that was being experienced by so many others across the country.

“I just hope I don’t fall down if I win,” he said.

On occasion, the lottery hopefuls interviewed this week allowed themselves to dreamily vocalize the things they’d do with their winnings. They spoke of paying off student loans and mortgages. Of new houses and new cars. Somewhat surprisingly, many reported that they would continue working, even if they somehow landed the entire $800 million pot.

“If I work for eight more years, I get retiree benefits,” explained May Huang, who manages a research center at Harvard University.

“I wouldn’t [quit],” said Zach Brazao, a senior sociology major at Harvard who said he was only buying because of the inflated pot. “I think it would be emotional turmoil for me to not have gainful employment.”

Over at Out of Town News, however, employee Ishwar Lamichhane had an explanation for those insisting they’d continue showing up to work.

“They’re lying,” he said.

Indeed, 45-year-old Frank Taylor had to consider the question as he stopped in for a rare Powerball ticket at Crimson Corner. A computer programmer, he was scheduled to start a new job with IBM on Monday. He enjoyed his work, he said, and didn’t figure that he’d leave it.

The more he thought about it, however, the less sure he seemed.

A moment passed.

“Honestly, I’d probably end up quitting within six months,” he said finally. “Who am I kidding?”

Beth Teitell of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Dugan Arnett can be reached at Beth Teitell can be reached at