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Does it pay to pool?

When Lotto jackpots get big - tonight's is $82-million - so do the groups of people who get together to try to win. But they rarely win.

Published April 18, 2006

TAMPA - Purchasing $70 in Florida Lotto tickets Tuesday, Faye Bastra had one thing on her mind: the lucky 13 state workers who won Missouri's $200-million-plus Powerball jackpot last week.

If they can do it, Bastra figures, so can she. With a little help from her friends.

Tonight's estimated $82-million jackpot prompted Bastra and six buddies from her sci-fi book club to pool their resources and improve their odds.

Whether the drawing will mean riches for Mood Organ - the club's name - is yet to be seen. But Bastra, 44, and her friends won't be alone in teaming up for a shot at a dream.

When the Lotto jackpot rises, so does participation in lottery pools. From offices to college campuses to Mood Organ (it's from the novel that inspired Blade Runner ), there's a special feeling to banking on a shared dream.

But if there's no I in TEAM, maybe there should be.

Individual players win the Florida Lotto far more often than pools, spokeswoman Leslie Steele said.

Since Steele joined the Florida Lottery in January 2004, and over more than 225 Lotto drawings, only three pools have won or shared the jackpot.

It happened last December in Tampa - 44 co-workers at University Community Hospital-Carrollwoo d won a $10-million jackpot. They claimed a lump-sum option of nearly $5.9-million, or about $134,000 per person.

In May 2005, nine Panhandle women dubbed the "Panama City Working Girls" claimed a $27-million jackpot. They also took the lump sum and were paid about $1.7-million each.

And one month earlier, there were three winning tickets in a $6-million jackpot, one held by a pool of 17 workers from West Palm Beach. They split a lump sum of $1.1-million, about $65,000 each.

While pooling with other players improves your odds dramatically, it's not enough to matter much, said Greg McColm, a University of South Florida mathematics professor.

Odds of winning Lotto with one ticket are about 1-in-23-million. Buy 10 tickets, and join nine buddies who do the same, and you're 100 times more likely to win.

But it's still incredibly unlikely: 100-in-23-million, or basically a 1-in-230,000 shot.

You're still four times as likely to be killed by a lightning strike.

Plus, by teaming up with nine friends, McColm said, you have just reduced your potential return by 90 percent.

Some regular pool players realize their dedication might not mean results, at least in the short term.

Cathy Gliewe of Clearwater is in a pool with five co-workers at a St. Petersburg utility company. The pool's total investment each week is $12, split among a few games. But when the jackpot is high, they put it all on Lotto.

"We have not been successful. In four years, we have won about $100," Gliewe said. "But we're all afraid to stop."

Each worries about opting out the very week the group takes in a big win, she said: "We are slaves to the game."

At St. Petersburg staffing company Ceridian, a pool of more than 100 employees plays Lotto regularly. For the April 12 drawing, they purchased 380 tickets.

They use a spreadsheet to record each player's contribution and how much that player would win if they hit the jackpot.

When the estimated jackpot was $50-million on April 12, a player who put in $2 could have won more than $260,000. For $10? More than $1.3-million.

"If you are off of work that day, you have someone play for you," said Patrice Royal, an account manager at the company. "You just can't imagine everyone winning while you are on the sidelines."

But there can be an ugly side to winning, said Gail Howard, a lottery expert in Las Vegas.

"Co-workers can be very close, the best of friends, but when big money gets involved, everything changes," she said. "And sometimes not even big money."

Howard says anyone who plays a lottery pool should draw a simple agreement, signed and dated.

"People think, well, it's just a dollar or two," she said. "But if that wins an $82-million jackpot, suddenly that dollar is worth millions."

Never happen, said Faye Bastra, as she collected the tickets for Mood Organ.

"I don't think we'd ever change," said Bastra, a nursery school worker. "We like to read about fantasy, but we're more grounded than most people."

But Howard's concerns ring true to the minds of some television writers.

On June 8, NBC will premiere a new series, Windfall, chronicling the lives of 20 fictional friends who win a $386-million lottery prize.

"If you've ever dreamed of winning it all, be careful what you wish for," a network promo warns. "Money changes everything."

Times staff writers Chase Squires and Marlon Walker and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 18, 2006, 22:55:21]

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