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Dollar followed dollar into state coffers as Greene bent her head and carefully scraped the gray film off the small "Spot Cash" tickets to reveal the numbers. Six times she won $2; more often she lost.
But each time she would fumble in her purse for another dollar bill, then turn to Donny Wines at the cash register. "Get me one more ticket," she said, time after time. "I'm going to win this time. Watch this." And so she'd scratch away, and still the numbers would not match. "Get me two more tickets," she'd say. "This time I'm going for the big one."
Martin Puncke, director of the Maryland State Lottery, said between 4 and 5 million of the $1 tickets were sold in the first five days of "Spot Cash." He estimated that 30 million tickets would be sold within 10 weeks, leaving 36 million tickets to sell next year. The state hopes to make about $30 million profit by the time all the tickets are sold.
It's not all fun and games. The bill allowing the instant lottery met some opposition in Annapolis from legislators who argued that the lure of "instant gratification" was no different from that of slot machines, which are banned in Maryland.
But whatever the implications, the faded yellow sign of Mike's Liquors on Indian Head Highway pulls in the customers. When Maryland ran an instant lottery game in 1976, Mike's sold $81,000 in tickets -- more than any other outlet in the state.
Yes, Greene said, "just like slot machines. I could buy these tickets all night. This is fun. It's almost like going to Atlantic City. I'm going to buy one more . . . ."
"Just like peanuts," it's difficult to have just one, said Frank Lerch, the burly general manager of Mike's Liquors. Sometimes 20 people are standing at the new counter at one time, he said. Mike's attracts D.C. residents as well as Marylanders, and because it is just five minutes from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, it draws Virginians, too. After three days, Mike's had sold more than $8,000 in tickets and the counter was littered with the scrapings.
Lerch complained that he makes only 5 cents from each ticket. "But I have to have it, just to maintain my business," he said. He walked up to the cash register to buy himself a ticket. "And I have fun with it."
Four people won $500 in his store during the first three days of the lottery, Lerch said. He said he wanted to pay them off in cash on the spot, but winnings greater than $10 are paid off by check mailed from Baltimore. "I'd love to pay the $500 on the spot, and yell about it," he said. "I'm a salesman. It would be beautiful. Everyone would love it and they'd come back. I'd have a ball. I'd love to give out the government's money."
Many of Lerch's customers complained that the state wasn't giving out enough prize money.
"I have a sneaking suspicion that they probably printed very few special prizes," said an Oxon Hill physician who stood back from the crowd with his small stack of spent tickets. He asked that his name not be used (patients don't like to hear that their doctor has been gambling in liquor stores, he said).
The doctor said he played about 30 tickets but won nothing greater than $2. "I tried this to see how it works," he said. "I'm investigating it." He said he would conclude his investigation the next day.
He said most of the people buying tickets couldn't afford them, and added, "I have a clinic, and people will have a bill they won't pay for 16 months and I'll find them here buying tickets." But he said he thought the lottery was a good idea. "Gambling is like prostitution," he said. "You can't stop it. If they don't gamble here they'll gamble somewhere else and they will lose their money. Here, it's going to something."
Donald Goins of Oxon Hill, who bought 22 tickets in two days, complained that the odds were not good enough. He scratched his last ticket. "There you are," he said. "Nothing. I think it's too much of a gimmick."
He picked up a pamphlet on the new game that was lying on the counter. "They're not fooling you," he said, pointing to the odds listing. The odds of winning the smallest amount, $2, was one in 9.96. The odds of winning the largest prize, $25,000, was one in 937,500.
"They tell you what the odds are and I'm dumb enough to go along," he said. "It's like anything else. Everybody's looking for something for nothing. It's just a means of blowing more money. It's your own dumbness."
But while Goins was talking, Aloysius P. Lee won $50. He filled out the winner's form without saying a word, and headed for the door. "I don't think I'll come back," he said. He said he was not at all excited by his prize. "Not for this little bit of money," he said. "When I win big money, I'll get excited."
Wayne Leslie, a cheery man from Oxon Hill in a maroon windbreaker, was having less luck, although he had spent $50 on tickets. "I'm spending my money but I'm not getting anything out of it," he said. "There should be more payoff. You can't go on too long, spending this money. I really think Maryland should put more winning tickets in the game.
"You're spending unnecessary money that you don't have to spend," he said. "If this game hadn't come up, if I hadn't have spent, I'd have put it for my kids for school, and for payments on my new car."
But he kept buying the tickets. Elena Greene, a few feet away, was keeping pace with him. She won $2 but Leslie wasn't impressed. "They should eliminate the $2 -- and the $5 -- and go from $500 up," he said. He began pacing the room and cursing the state.
"Nobody wins," Greene agreed. "I had $32 when I came in. Now I have $10. I'm going to stop. I say I'm going to stop, but I'll keep on buying the tickets. I'm having fun, but it's the state of Maryland that's making the money."
Leslie came back to the counter. "You can't win anything, you see," he said. He turned to Wines, at the cash register: "Get me two more of these things. I'll show you." He scraped both, but won nothing. He cursed Maryland again. The only thing he ever won, he said, was an "all-expenses-paid" trip to Hawaii. "And I had to pay about $800 in taxes on it," he said.
"But this is fun," said Greene.
"It's what I wanted to do," Leslie replied.
"You said the magic words," said Greene. "You wanted to do it. I'm going to get me one more ticket. I've never been hooked on anything before."
Leslie bought another ticket, too.
They scraped their tickets. Leslie won nothing. "See what I mean?" he said.
"I won $2," Greene said.
"That's what you always get," Leslie said. "Nothing more than $2." He turned to Wines: "Get me another one. I'm going to show you how crooked the state of Maryland is. They know how to get you."
He scraped the new ticket. "See what I got out of this one? Not a damned thing. We should let the people of Maryland know they're getting ripped off."