Who wants to feed a millionaire? 

Lotto fever has a strange effect on people. Whenever the accrued jackpot reaches the upper two digits -- as it did last Wednesday, rolling over into a tidy $65 million -- there's a new urgency to the betting rituals of folks who regularly augment their purchases of beer and Lucky Strikes with game cards. And even many of our saner citizens start acting like the cast of "Waking Ned Devine."

Squarely in the latter category was Richard, the green-vested customer-service rep who sold me my first-ever Florida Lottery ticket last Saturday at the Publix grocery store on U.S. Highway 192 in Kissimmee.

"I only play when it's hot," Richard said in defense of his highly selective Lotto habits. "What's the point of playing for only $3 million?" His car, I presumed, must run on that pricey premium gas.

Guys like Richard are proof that gambling and logic don't mix. But I had no room to criticize as I turned in my self-selected numbers, which ran in the unorthodox order of 20, 22, 25, 26, 27 and 38 -- the ages of all five Backstreet Boys, plus that of "Charles in Charge" star Scott Baio. I was a virgin to the game, and I wasn't even a legitimate player, just a reporter conducting an experiment. (Yeah, that's the ... um, ticket.) But at least I had a system.

For good measure, I bought another ticket, using a second series of numerals that had been revealed to me in a fortune cookie I had cracked that very day, when I ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant. They were accompanied by the sage advice, "Avoid negative people." Hitting a five-of-six sequence or better would make that directive much easier to follow.

No flamingoes allowed

A few miles from Publix lay the picket-fenced hamlet of Celebration, which should have been a prime site for further research. No one is more interested in obtaining an obscene sum of money than someone who already has it.

"You are on Disney property," a Gooding's employee politely but firmly corrected when I asked if they sold Lotto tickets, "and he does not believe in gambling." Whichever "he" she referred to (Eisner? Uncle Walt? Chip? Dale?) may have prohibited numbers rackets on Celebration's terra firma, but He apparently has nothing against "Bride of Chucky," "Jerry Springer in Ringmaster" and "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," which are all available for rental from the Gooding's shelves.

Having only two tickets entered in the sweepstakes didn't fill me with confidence. As every armchair Jimmy the Greek knows, the more you play, the better your chances of winning become. (Unless, that is, you happen to be the Houston Astros.) So I took a trip to the State Discount Center, a dimly lit drug store on south Orange Avenue whose counter signage relates the fairy-tale success story of Larry Grounds, who on Oct. 24, 1997, picked up a winning ticket on the premises. Its value: $6 million. I asked the young woman behind the register if Grounds still shops at State Discount.

"He's gone," she eulogized, smiling and shaking her head. But before his disappearance, she said, he had come into the shop on "two or three" more occasions, buying another lottery slip each time. Imagine the greed and mania that drive a multimillionaire to revisit the scene of his windfall, as if his neighborhood retailer were a lucky slot machine that might continue to pay off.

This time, I allowed the store's computer to generate my bet. That machine obviously knows its onions. (Just ask Larry, if you can find him.)

Money changes nothing

With one hour to go before the 11 p.m. reading of the winning combination, I made a whirlwind tour of convenience stores and gas stations, just to see what the last-minute competition looked like. To all of you who haven't yet played the lottery: Never do this. The panorama of unwashed-but-optimistic good ol' boys and gals (some placing 10 bets at a time) will make you dread the possibility that you might have to share your fortune -- and worse, your brief notoriety on the TV news -- with four or more of them.

When the Big Moment came, I was seated at the bar of the 310 Park South restaurant in downtown Winter Park. The Merlot-swilling customers didn't seem to mind having the TV station changed from ESPN to WUPN-TV Channel 65 for the countdown. But none produced tickets of their own.

The numbered balls fell into place, and I saw that I had stumbled onto a healthy three out of six -- all on separate tickets, of course. The 26-year-old Howie Dorough was the only Backstreeter who had come through for me. Any way you sliced it, I was once, twice, three times a sucker.

"I bet it rolls over," I mused, conveniently forgetting that my wagering abilities were now suspect at best.

The Sunday-morning news programs brought word that a single matching ticket had been sold in Vero Beach. Whoever owns it, I wish him or her a safe trip to the Riviera. But I've learned my lesson. For as long as I live, I will never, ever, eat Chinese food again.

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