Eight years on her feet as a Las Vegas cocktail waitress taught Cynthia Jay a thing or two about chintzy patrons. "I've gotten a bus token for a tip before," says Jay—who earned $30,000 last year—shaking her head. "Sometimes you wish people would say thank you, that's all."

Whatever largesse she may have been denied over the years, it was more than made up for at 9:45 p.m. on Jan. 26, when Jay pulled a slot machine handle and scored a nearly $35 million jackpot, the biggest slot payout in Nevada history. "I really don't think I'll be going back to cocktáils," she says.

Instead, Jay, 37, will drink to her decision to keep gambling beyond her usual $21 budget. The key moment came toward the end of an evening at the casino with boyfriend Terry Brennan, 44, and his parents. Finding herself with a spare moment and a few dollars in her pocket, Jay decided to try her luck. "After all, if you don't play, you can't win," she says. And though the $3 Megabucks slots—part of a network of machines whose jackpots increase as gamblers feed them money—offer daunting 50 million to 1 odds, Jay's ninth spin sent the wheels into alignment, firing off the jackpot lights, whistles and sirens.

The fourth of eight children born to Harold, a retired painting contractor, and Anna, who operated a glass company with her second husband, Jay moved to Las Vegas with her family in 1979. She and Brennan, a local bartender, have dated for only eight months, but since they gamble together, Jay says they'll split the bonanza 50-50. "The money will change things," admits Jay, "but I still don't plan to be a different person." Just a world-class tipper.