January madness: Powerball pools drive offices bonkers

Forget March Madness brackets or Super Bowl point spreads or Girl Scout cookie season. The most maniacal workplace frenzy of all time broke out across America this week as office pools for tickets to Wednesday’s $1.5 billion Powerball lottery accelerate to space-time-continuum-warp speeds.

With hallucinatory visions of plutocratic grandeur on sale for just $2 a pop, Powerball tickets have been selling at a rate of more than 2 million an hour since Saturday’s drawing failed to turn up a winner. And a big chunk of those are being sold to groups of office colleagues who’ve pooled their money to cut their odds of winning from an astronomical one in 292 million to a mere one in 30 million or so.

There’s no official count of the pools or even a wild guess, but judging from Twitter and Facebook postings on Tuesday, they wayyyy surpass the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin.

“Now I need to win,” Massachusetts radio deejay Suzanne Lewis plaintively tweeted Tuesday. “I’m growing broke in office pools.” Halfway across the country, Chicago telecommunications executive Brian Sharp declared himself a victim of pool exhaustion. “I can't wait until someone wins this Powerball so I can stop donating $5 to these stupid office pools,” he tweeted.

The mania has even spilled across the border to Canada, where foreign-exchange offices Tuesday were crowded with customers seeking U.S. dollars so they could send representatives of their pools to the border to buy Powerball tickets.

“It’s a fever,” said Raymond Rody, a marketing professor at FIU’s College of Business. “Nobody cares about being a millionaire anymore, that won’t change your life. But being a billionaire! Now that’s something.”

At some offices, the pools have grown so big that they’ll probably wreck their businesses if they win. “The store probably won’t open if we’ve a winning ticket,” said Ana Woolnough, who sells wireless equipment at the Sam’s Club store in Miramar. “The whole right side of the store — the part that sells electronic stuff — is the pool, and there definitely will be nobody coming that morning if we win a billion dollars. We’re gonna hire a party bus to Tallahassee to pick up the money.”


Over at the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department, where an entire work unit of 50 employees has formed two different pools, a supervisor — seriously — told them that they can’t all quit at the same time if they win.

“Some people told her they’d stick around for a little while, and a lot of people just nodded and smiled,” said Dorien Rowe, one of the workers. “I think it’s hard to say until you’re actually faced with the decision.” Hard, that is, for other people to say: “You’ll never see me in this building again,” Rowe proclaimed. “That’s not happening.”

(Don’t worry, you can still take a shower or use the toilet the next morning if Rowe’s pool wins. They do digital mapping rather than plumbing.)

So many tickets are being purchased by pools in New York that the state’s lottery commission Tuesday issued a set of guidelines for running them. (Most important one: Don’t include crooks or swindlers in your group.) Florida didn’t do anything like that, though state officials have no doubt that pools are forming here by the zillions.

“The thing with lottery tickets is that they’re being purchased with cash, and we usually have no idea who they are or whether they’re buying 50 tickets for themselves or as part of a pool,” said Florida lottery spokeswoman Shelly Gerteisen. “So it’s very hard to get demographic information in general.

“We know, anecdotally, that we have pools — we’ve had groups of nurses who won, and groups of teachers. But sometimes they just assign one representative of the group to come forward and pick up the check, and we never really know.”

Florida will only issue a jackpot check to one person — the one who brings in the ticket — which is why pools either need to be very selective about who they include, or make sure the terms are written down and signed. Half a dozen or more lawsuits have been filed around the country over the past few years accusing pool organizers of ripping off or jerking around their (ex-) friends and colleagues.

“Large sums of money often breed large disputes,” said Rubin Sinins, a Springfield, New Jersey, attorney who represented five construction workers who successfully sued a sixth: the guy who bought the tickets each week for their pool. They accused him of making off with $24 million that was actually won by their pool. “These pools are serious, especially as the amounts at stake go up to these crazy levels. And it’s not just money at stake. The lawsuit I worked on ruined long-standing friendships.”

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