At Va. bar, $45 million in payoffs mean a lot of Lotto

August 10, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLONIAL BEACH, Va. -- While the thought of winning tonight's estimated $20 million Maryland lotto jackpot is enough to make King Midas drool, you can't blame the staff at one lottery outlet for being a little bit unimpressed about it all.

Twenty million, shmunty million. It isn't even the best pay-off at Little Reno.

Thanks to a quirk of geography that puts the tidal Potomac River within the state of Maryland, this odd conglomerate of honky-tonk bar, restaurant, arcade, miniature golf course and liquor store on the Virginia side of the river finds itself in the best of all possible states when it comes to the lottery.

Built on a pier over the water, Little Reno straddles Maryland and Virginia. Walk in the door and you're in Virginia. Forward a few paces, and welcome to the land of Black-eyed Susans.

So while Maryland's payoff is big, Virginia's is bigger, and Little Reno sells tickets to both lottos. By happy coincidence the Virginia jackpot is expected to reach $25 million for tonight's drawing, a record for that state.

"You should see the bookkeeper try to figure it out," Little Reno manager Donna Trowbridge said. "She pulls her hair out most of the time."

The establishment was Maryland's leading lottery dealer until Virginia started up its own lottery in 1988. But it found plenty of takers yesterday for both drawings. Where else can you try for a combined $45 million payoff?

"I am determined to get it. I am determined to become a millionaire," said Barbara Ford, a Petersburg, Va., resident who drove 90 minutes for her $15 in Maryland tickets and $5 in Virginia ones. "I ought to hit one of them this week. This is my lucky period of the year."

Joseph R. Head, a Colonial Beach police officer and part-time bouncer at Little Reno, spent a more conservative $5 with each. "There aren't too many places where you can buy two different lottos eight feet away from each other," he said.

"I would invest $100 if I could spare it," said Alvin Kane, a heavy-equipment operator who drove 30 miles from Fredericksburg, Va., to invest $10 in the Maryland lotto. "I like to buy from Maryland when I can."

Kerry Ehrlich of Falls Church, Va., brought along her husband and grandmother so she could get a picture of them straddling the state line under the "Welcome to Virginia" sign. She spent $2 in Maryland and handed over $4 in Virginia, only to be chided as a compulsive gambler by her husband.

"It only takes one chance to win," she reminded him.

Die-hard fans say the bus-station-with-a-view atmosphere of Little Reno is worth a long drive -- if only because the Maryland address allows the bar to stay open later and sell take-out liquor.

Interstate fights have been known to break out here, which can be a problem since technically the Charles County Sheriff's Department across the river would have to be summoned to make arrests in Maryland. "The volunteer fire department will come, though," Mrs. Trowbridge pointed out.

Maryland and Virginia lottery officials said they aren't too concerned about cross-over sales. Little Reno is one of only two dealers where the two states compete directly. The other is down the river at Coles Point, where a lottery agent is similarly situated on a pier.

"We think the two jackpots are the highest in the country this week," said Cherie Phaup, a Virginia State Lottery spokeswoman. "I see Virginia people buy Maryland tickets and Marylanders buy Virginia tickets. I'd say we're pretty even right now."

Actually, Maryland seems to be doing quite a bit better at Little Reno. Mrs. Trowbridge said that she generally can expect to sell $10,000 to $12,000 in lottery tickets each week in Maryland but takes in only $2,000 to $3,000 on her Virginia machine.

Part of the reason is the novelty of playing the Maryland game but part is the odds -- or, at least, the illusion of better odds.

Maryland's ticket, based on picking six of 49 numbers, gives the holder two chances for $1. Virginia offers six of 44 numbers but only one chance for the same price.

While that might appear to make the Maryland ticket twice as good, it isn't. According to the lottery agencies the difference between two $1 tickets is minimal: 1 in 7.1 million odds in Virginia vs. 1 in 6.9 million in the Maryland game.

"We don't have any problems with a neighbor having a higher jackpot," Maryland lottery agency spokeswoman Elyn Garrett said. "We've got plenty of people excited about the Maryland prize."

Another attraction of Little Reno is its rich gambling heritage. The original building on the pier hosted banks of slot machines, once legal in Maryland's Charles County.

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