The District of Columbia's first legal lottery begins officially today. Unofficially, however, it was already under way yesterday, as consumer demand led some vendors to jump the gun.

Although no establishment was supposed to sell the one-dollar instant lottery tickets before 12:01 this morning, some vendors yesterday were happily selling tickets -- and paying out prizes as well.

For example, City Liquors at 1226 H St. NW had sold approximately 400 tickets by the afternoon and paid "quite a few" $2, $5, and $10 winners, according to Jay Adelson, who works at the store owned by his family.

City Liquors -- like many of the outlets that plan to participate -- purchased its lottery tickets in advance of the official debut.

"We called the lottery board and they said as long as we had the tickets, we could sell them," Adelson said. Officials of the Charitable Games Control Board denied that they gave anyone the go-ahead to sell tickets early, but did not seem too put out by the early sales.

"It's like giving a kid a sucker and telling him not to eat it," said board spokesman Alex Exum, who added that legally the vendors already own the tickets.

People like Robert Wells were not complaining. Wells purchased eight tickets at City Liquors yesterday and won twice -- $2 each time.

"I think it's fun," he said with a smile, for the moment ignoring the fact that the tickets had cost him $8 while his winnings so far had totaled half that sum.

Glenn Washington, another City Liquors customer, said he intends to buy a ticket today. "I need the money to fight Reaganomics," he said. He said he is glad money spent on the lottery will remain in the District, unlike money spent on the Maryland numbers game.

The tickets cost $1 apiece and players find whether they have won by rubbing the silver-colored coating -- if there are three matching dollar amounts among the six squares, the card is a winner. One of each nine tickets is a winner, the lottery board says.

Prizes up to $10 are paid on the spot at the place of purchase, and winning tickets of $100, $1,000 and $10,000 must be validated and paid at the claims center at 1420 New York Ave. NW. All $100 winners will be eligible for a $1 million grand prize drawing when the game is over.

The lottery board expects to sell the 10 million instant lottery tickets within eight weeks, earning at least $3 million for the city's coffers, according to the board.