Mega Millions lottery

Marie Steele holds her dog, Little Bit, as she purchases a Mega Millions lottery ticket at a newsstand in Hollywood, Fla. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images / December 16, 2013)

A flurry of last-minute ticket buying pushed the Mega Millions jackpot to $636 million Tuesday, putting it just shy of the all-time record, lottery officials said.

With the majority of Mega Millions tickets typically purchased the day of the drawing, lottery officials had expected a surge of activity. That frenzy now has the Tuesday drawing within striking distance of the record $656 million haul set in March 2012. The cash payout option now stands at $341 million.

Paula Otto, Virginia's lottery director, who heads the multi-state Mega Millions game, told CBS that if no one wins Tuesday -- a 1 in 259 million chance -- the jackpot could very well pass the $1-billion mark by Christmas Eve.

“We had predicted last week that if we are still on the same roll on Christmas Eve," she said, "we’ll definitely be over a billion.”

At Dick's Liquor in Koreatown, clerk Jose Bachez said many of his customers had caught the Mega Millions fever. One spent about $50 alone.

But the fantasy of hitting it big is too much for some to resist.

The dream of winning is fun … you know, until you don’t match any of the numbers,” Phill Kaplan, 30, of Denver told the Los Angeles Times. “But then again, the chance that you could win is the reason I buy tickets.”

The game is played in 43 states as well as the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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jason.wells@latimes.com

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