Long lines as Powerball arrives in California

LOS ANGELES — When America got Powerball fever last November, Californians felt left out.

Many asked friends in other states to buy tickets, and some even drove to the Arizona border when the jackpot for the multistate game reached $587.5 million.

On Monday, Californians no longer had to worry about crossing state lines, because Powerball finally came to the state. Lottery die-hards lined up all across California for their 1-in-175-million chance to win.

John Apodaca, 62, of Hawthorne, was part of one line. The veteran said that after he returned from Vietnam, a woman read his palm and said he would be a rich man — so he goes to the Bluebird Liquor store every day at the same time and plays the same numbers. He’s there so often that an employee welcomed him with a salute.

Apodaca has played Powerball before — in New York, while visiting his daughter. The game’s arrival in California was all he needed to feel a little extra luck Monday.

“The Powerball came to me,” he said. “I didn’t go to the Powerball this time.”

Powerball marks a further effort by the state lottery to go beyond Scratchers to larger games with much higher jackpots. Last year, the state lottery got a taste of possibilities when its Mega Millions multistate game grew to a $656 million prize. That game alone added $300 million in sales for the lottery over two months, resulting in a 27 percent increase in total revenues for the year.

Powerball is even larger than Mega Millions, with a starting jackpot that is more than three times as large. The games are similar — requiring players to match up to six numbers — and the odds of hitting the jackpot in each of the games are almost exactly the same: 1 in about 175 million.

“It sounds ridiculous to say, but if the jackpot is $56 million, it just doesn’t motivate people the way a $656 million jackpot does,” said Alex Traverso, a spokesman for the state lottery.

The typical lottery player is loyal and plays as part of a routine. With their huge jackpots that generate news and online buzz, Powerball and Mega Millions can draw large numbers of people who rarely play, as well as lottery regulars.

Lottery revenues flattened at the start of the recession. But last year, sales jumped from $3.4 billion to $4.4 billion, with much of the increase due to new customers who came for that $656 million jackpot. The lottery sent $1.2 billion of that revenue to California schools, as required by law.

The arrival of Powerball in California came with an $8.4 million marketing campaign and “launch events” at the Grove in Los Angeles and the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco.

But it also sparked fresh criticism from those who believe the government should not be in the gambling business.

While Powerball generates bigger jackpots, critics say multistate lotteries are even harder to win. They also expressed concern about the $2 ticket price, double the price of a Mega Millions ticket.

“Expanding the lottery is bad for individuals,” said the Rev. James B. Butler of the California Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, adding that many of the customers are lower-income people looking to hit it big. “It will exploit those who can afford it least.”

Still, registers rang nearly nonstop Monday at Hawthorne’s Bluebird Liquor, considered a hot spot by lottery regulars. “Powerball to the people,” read the headline of one of the newspapers sold outside.

The store began selling Powerball tickets at 7 a.m. and by noon, employee Eduardo Duran said, about 8,000 had been purchased. “As far as business, you can see it’s good,” he said, gesturing to a line that snaked out the door.

As Duran and two others tried to help customers quickly, the phone rang. “Thank you for calling the lucky Bluebird,” Duran answered.

A woman asked how long the wait was to buy a ticket.

“All day,” Duran told her. “We’re going to have a line all day.”

Gloria Gilbert, 56, is another longtime customer. After buying her tickets, she headed over to a small bluebird figurine perched atop a cigarette display at the store’s counter, and rubbed her ticket on the back of the bird’s head.

“Rub the bluebird for luck, and luck comes to you,” she said.

Wayne Castle, 31, of Torrance was at the AutoZone across the street when he saw the line at Bluebird. Castle said he normally doesn’t play the lottery, but when he heard the line was for Powerball, he decided to try his luck.

When asked how he’d react if his ticket turned out to be the lucky one, Castle smiled.

“That’d be pretty cool,” he said.

Nearby, a steady stream of customers filed into a 7-Eleven listed as a “lucky retailer” on the California Lottery website. Lisa Ray, 28, of Huntington Beach purchased her first lottery ticket, enticed by Powerball’s higher payout.

“$40 million? Come on!” Ray said, adding that it probably wouldn’t be the last time trying her luck.

“Why not?” she said. “Somebody’s got to win.”

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