Playing To Win Champ: For Rae Rossen, entering contests is almost as routine as breathing. Winning them is pretty routine, too.

March 26, 1997|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

Let's face it, your story isn't a pretty one. You're one of these people who never wins anything. You buy $10 worth of chances on a fully loaded 1997 minivan from the sad-eyed woman outside church, only the minivan always goes to someone else, usually some 25-year-old stud who looks like Antonio Banderas and already drives a candy-apple-red Miata.

You buy raffle tickets for big-screen TVs, VCRs and Caribbean vacations from beefy men in windbreakers outside the Safeway -- firefighters, Boy Scout leaders, Knights of Columbus, who knows who these people are? But your phone never rings with a breathless voice on the other end squealing: "Congratulations! You won!"

You've entered hundreds of contests and sweepstakes in your life. But you never won diddly. Never won a turkey for the holidays. Never won a basket of cheer. Never even won a $15 gift certificate for a cut and blow-dry at Hazel's House o' Hair.

God, you're pathetic.

Then one day you hear about Rae Rossen. Rae Rossen, they say, wins everything! In the last few months alone, she's won a seven-night Disney World vacation-cruise package for four, a 60-inch color TV, and a high-speed computer modem worth at least $200.

In more than 20 years of serious "contesting," she's won well over 500 prizes, including a new luxury automobile, a Wedgwood china service for 20, camcorders, jewelry, encyclopedias, luggage, clothing and meals at so many restaurants she might as well blacktop her kitchen and use it for a carport.

Just six days ago, she won a $500 gift certificate in the Kal Kan Pedigree Brand "Great Outdoors" Sweepstakes. Luckily, it was for $500 in outdoor equipment rather than $500 in dog food, which would have been a problem, since she doesn't have a dog. Not that she's the type to pull on the waders and do a little fly-fishing, either.

Anyway, you figure, this Rossen is a story, so you call her up. And in the course of the conversation, you let it be known (in a voice you hope is not too whiny) about your rotten luck, how you can't even win a large fries in the McDonald's scratch-off contest, never mind a new set of wheels or fine china or any of that other loot she's scored.

"Oh, yes, I hear that all the time," she says with a knowing laugh, like the band leader at a wedding who's just been told: "The wife here, she only dances to the Electric Slide."

But Rossen proves to be friendly and sympathetic and she agrees to meet you at her flagstone split-level home in a pleasant neighborhood in Randallstown. There, she promises, she will share some of the secrets of her success, secrets that might even help a schlub like you win, oh, a Sony Walkman.

OK, maybe that's shooting too high. Maybe a Celine Dion CD is the best you can hope for, Mr. Loser.

Still, it's a start.

So you make the drive up Liberty Road and spend some time with Rossen, mostly in her dining room, where the Wedgwood china gleams like the display case at Tiffany's and where she's surrounded by entry forms for dozens of contests and sweepstakes. (There is a difference: Contests require a skill from the entrant, such as the ability to write an essay, while sweepstakes are based on a random drawing.)

And as she patiently walks you through the life of a "contestor," you discover that the secret to her winning is this: She works at it.

It takes effort

For starters, Rossen, a free-lance writer who politely declines to give her age ("It makes people think of you a certain way"), fills out an average of 90 entry forms for 30 separate sweepstakes each week. She studies Sweepstakes Profile, a weekly publication listing current and upcoming sweepstakes, the way other people bone up for their bar exams.

It's a hobby, she says, but a consuming one. It takes up three hours each night. She drops $30 a week on stamps, and doesn't give it a second thought; this is the price of stepping up to the plate in big-league contesting, where there's always some new phenom looking to beef up her stats by copping the top prize in, say, the "Sunlight Win a GE Profile Dishwasher" sweepstakes.

Rossen also has developed a kind of built-in sonar that is eerie at times and tends to freak out her husband Harry, but is one you need in this game.

"When I see the word 'contest' in a store, on an entry blank, wherever, my eyes, my ears, are immediately attuned to the [possibilities]," she says.

The thing about Rossen is, the prizes don't seem to matter to her -- at least not all that much.

Maybe that's easy to say after you've won 500 prizes, everything from all-expenses-paid trips to Las Vegas and California to musical panties (yes, yes, we'll get to that in a minute) and a chance to schmooze backstage with has-been rocker Meat Loaf (we'll get to that, too).

But the fact is, what thrills her is the hunt, not the prize itself. She brings a certain altruism to her hobby, giving away lots of stuff she's won and cheerfully lecturing to writers groups and senior citizens associations on the topic, "How to Enhance Your Chance of Winning."

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