US on tenterhooks ahead of record $2.2b jackpot

New York - Americans flocked to snap up last-minute tickets in the final countdown to Wednesday's Powerball lottery drawing, which could see one lucky winner walk off with a world record US$1.5 billion (S$2.2 billion) jackpot.

Office workers dashed out between meetings to buy tickets, workmen fantasized about what they would do with the winnings, and commuters joked about hoping the jackpot could save them from the deep freeze of a New York winter.

For days, the talk of the nation, from coast to coast, and even from Canada to Mexico, is: will someone finally win the first Powerball jackpot in two months and, if so, how would you spend such a whopping jackpot?

The odds of winning are one in 292 million, but if the all but impossible did happen, the winner can choose to be paid the full jackpot in annual installments for 29 years or take US$929.9 million as a one-off payment.

The Multi-State Lottery Association says if there are no winners in Wednesday's live TV draw, set for 10:59 pm (0359 GMT Thursday), the jackpot will roll over to US$2 billion on Saturday with a lump sum payout of $1.24 billion.

Record sales have driven up the bonanza, as people dreaming of riches poured across state lines and international borders to snap up tickets. But lottery officials are not ruling out the prospect of the jackpot rising even further.

"I'm not a regular, but why not? Like the commercial says, 'Hey, you never know,'" said Nick Friedberg, a carpenter and father of two drinking coffee on a bitterly cold Manhattan street.

"Non-stop, everyone's talking about it," he said, running through a list of things he would like to buy. "Everything and anything I wanted!"

"Do the world, that's for sure. I'd love to do that," he told AFP.

"I'd love to go to Europe, never been. There are a lot of stuff over there I'd like to see, Italy and all that history. I like all that stuff."

To win the jackpot, a ticket holder has to match all numbers on six balls selected - five white ones from a drum containing 69 balls, and a red one pulled from a drum with 26.

A friend of Friedberg who would not give his name said colleagues have joked about buying their favorite bagel store and giving it to the girl who works there.

"She works her ass off and he sits there playing on his cell phone all morning," the friend complained, referring to the girl's boss.

"The winner is going to be somebody in the country, from a place we've never heard of," said J. Jay Backus, a New York bus driver. He told AFP he once won $5,000 playing a different lottery game.

"The ones who win are always the elderly or the rich people," he said.

Lottery executives say ticket sales have reached record levels.

"Sales are doing exponentially more than we've ever done before," Gary Grief, chair of the Powerball game group, told AFP on Tuesday.

"I'm hearing anecdotally and through news outlets, millions of people who have never played Powerball before are indeed purchasing a ticket." Some retailers scoring the biggest sales are in US states bordering the handful that do not participate in the game, he said.

"People are flocking over from those states to stand in line and buy lottery tickets," Grief said.

"You do not have to be a citizen of the US - people are coming from Mexico and Canada to purchase tickets." But Grief sounded a note of caution.

"We want people to play responsibly. This is not a game to put your life savings on, your retirement on. A big part of the fun is putting down your US$2 and then dreaming." The lottery anticipates that 85 percent of all possible combinations will be wagered on so there is an 85 percent likelihood of a jackpot winner on Wednesday night.

The previous US jackpot record of US$656 million, on March 30, 2012, was scooped up by three winners from North Carolina, Puerto Rico and Texas.

The world's richest lottery is Spain's annual Christmas "El Gordo," which in 2015 handed out 2.2 billion euros (US$2.4 billion) but which capped individual wins at 400,000 euros and handed out thousands of smaller prizes.