A lot of latex has been scraped off instant lottery tickets since legalized gambling made its debut last August in the District of Columbia, but you wouldn't want to bet that it's made much of a difference in Little Las Vegas.
Little Las Vegas is better known as Mount Rainier, or that part of it that consists of pawn shops, liquor stores and carryout shops on Rhode Island Avenue just across the District line. There, day after day, droves of D.C. residents cross the border to play the Maryland lottery numbers game.
Two years ago, Maryland officials feared that when the District finally adopted legalized gambling, Washington bettors would play the local game rather than drop by the computerized parlors of Little Las Vegas and other Maryland betting spots. They predicted the gamblers' change of venue could cost the state up to $30 million in revenue.
Well, since Aug. 25, when Washington began its lottery, more than 16 million instant lottery tickets have been sold, and the city has reaped an estimated $3 million.
But in Maryland, the numbers business is as brisk as ever, according to lottery officials.
"The District's lottery has not proved to be as devastating as we thought," said lottery spokesman Tom Skarzynski. "To the best of our knowlege there hasn't been any effect."
The Maryland lottery has a couple of virtues: you can bet once for a whole week and the game can be played for as little as 50 cents; it takes a dollar to buy a District ticket.
Above all it's the difference in the two games that has kept the new lottery from eclipsing the old. They are different forms of gambling. The District plans to start a numbers games next spring and Maryland officials won't be able to tell what effect gambling in the District has until then.
The Maryland lottery, which began in 1973, currently brings the state $8 million a week in revenue. One out of every three dollars wagered on the numbers in Maryland comes from Prince George's County -- that is, places like B&B Lottery Carryout, Bobb's Trading Company, and Bass' Liquors.
There are 10 parlors in Little Las Vegas. "Lottery girls" punch bets into computers until the machines automatically shut off at 7:25 p.m., five minutes before the winning number is drawn. Customers sometimes gather around the television set at Bobb's to watch the winning number being drawn on Channel 13. Many of the people selling tickets know their regular customers by the numbers they routinely bet. These are transactions in which superstition prevails and patrons are sometimes reluctant to divulge their names.
Among the bettors popping by Bobb's yesterday, for instance, were Mr. 303 and Ms. 169, and others who passed a list of bets through a slot in the bulletproof glass.
"The District lottery was a gimmick," said Ms. 169. "You don't see nobody winning anymore." The walls at Bobb's are papered with a month of winning digits. Sneaky Pete's dream books can be purchased to convert dreams into winning combinations. For a quarter, those utterly lacking in imagination can pay a gizmo to dream up a number for them.
As Diane Cariscy at Bass' Liquors can attest, the numbers playing the numbers in Maryland haven't diminished despite the gambling alternative in the District. Cariscy sells more than 3,000 tickets a day on the numbers computer in Bass' and hit for $500 herself with number 694 last July.
"I've had people tell me I'm the fastest keyboard operator in the lottery," she said. "I'm probably lucky because if I weren't there'd probably be a line from here out to the sidewalk and across Rhode Island Avenue."
The Maryland numbers game still attracts customers because it involves bettors more than the instant lottery. You can tailor a number around your birthday, or play the first three digits of your license plate, as many do. John Lane, 62 and recently recovered from a stroke, still drives out to Little Las Vegas with his wife Ruby from their home in Northwest Washington. He's won $1,500 betting 311 in the Maryland lottery, and has no patience with latex-scratchers in the District. "I got no business playing this at all," he laughed. "I used to play the illegal numbers in the District. This thing they got going now in the District, you'll never make any money on that. People are getting fed up. Who wants $5 or $10?"