Everybody's looking for a sure thing.
That won't be found buying just one ticket in Mega Millions.
The chances of winning tonight's $333 million jackpot - the amount was just raised today by $8 million - are a puny 1 in 176 million.
But what if you bought ALL 176 million possible combinations?
Of course, that's virtually impossible (too little time ... too low a limit on your Visa), but what if you could?
The cash payout is now $210.4 million - so you'd come out ahead by $34.4 million, right?
Ooooh no. Life's never that simple.
If anybody else also wins, you're sunk.
You'd lose big time.
In 2007, the jackpot rose to $330 million - and the four winners each got less than $40 million after taxes.
Oh yeah, taxes.
So even if you were the one and only winner, the 25 percent federal withholding would slash your initial take to about $153 million.
Ouch. Now you're out a lot of loot.
Again, not so fast.
First, you'd be in line for one incredible refund, because, you can deduct that $176 million you shelled out as expenses.
Once you get your tax refund, you'd be ahead again.
Second, what about the lower prizes?
Amazingly, they'd add up to another $32 million.
After all, you'd win the second prize of $250,000 with 45 tickets, for a nifty $11.25 million, and you'd even win $2 about 2.3 million times for more than $4.6 million.
Third, you'd boost your own jackpot quite a bit.
About half of all the ticket sales gets plowed back into the prizes, so about $88 million of your $176 million would get added to the pool.
How that would get divvied among the tiers depends on how many people win in each tier, according to New Jersey Lottery spokesman Dominick DeMarco.
But say $50 million winds up available in the cash jackpot, the lump-sum payout would jump to $260.4 million.
Add the $32 million for lower prizes and your total prize package is $292.4 million.
Subtracting the $176 million for the tickets, leaves a profit of $116.4 million.
(If our math is correct - and we're not overlooking a major wrinkle.)
At worst, your federal tax bite would be 35 percent in the upper bracket, according to IRS spokesman David Stewart.
That still leaves you about $75.7 million richer.
Since we're fantasizing, imagine one further trick: Buy all the tickets with your rewards credit card, and get an extra 1 percent - or $1.76 million - cash back. Or all those frequent flier miles.
Not too shabby.
As long as no one else wins.
Repeat: As long as no one else wins.
Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or email@example.com.