Lottery players sometimes prove a quirky and superstitious bunch, picking their numbers on sentimental value (a birthday, anniversary or just plain lucky number) and loyally playing the same game, using the same numbers, at the same store.
But would one person play a favorite set of numbers in the same game 15 times in a single day?
An oddity to be sure, lottery officials say -- but not unheard of. And that is their best guess about what happened in Saturday's Bonus Match 5 game -- which yielded a record 21 tickets winning the top prize, 15 of them bought at a Bethesda convenience store.
"We have players that are creatures of habit, and they will play their numbers over and over," said Carole Everett, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Lottery. "Or a group of people that said, `Hey Joe, let's play these numbers.' There's no mystery. That's just the way our players are."
Typically, just one or two winning tickets are sold each week for the Bonus Match 5 game, which is played seven days a week and usually has a top prize of $50,000. But with a limit of $600,000 on the top prize money for each night's drawing, the money is divided equally among the winners -- making each of Saturday's 21 tickets worth $28,571.43, lottery officials said.
Never in the game's history had so many winning tickets been sold for the same jackpot, but lottery officials saw no likelihood of fraud or a computer glitch. Rather, they chalk it up to something akin to Christmas luck.
"These people must believe in those numbers," said Buddy Roogow, director of the Maryland Lottery. "They got their wish."
By yesterday, four of the winners had claimed their prize at the lottery headquarters in Southwest Baltimore. Among them was a 60-year-old Reisterstown woman who had played the winning numbers -- 02-03-04-05-08 and bonus ball 30 -- twice at a Royal Farm convenience store on Chartley Drive, and therefore walked away with more than $57,000.
An added bonus, lottery officials say, is that the payoff for Bonus Match 5's top-tier prize is tax-free.
But lottery officials still don't know the identity of the person, or maybe persons, who bought the tickets bearing the 15 winning numbers at a 7-Eleven store in Bethesda -- first playing the number combination three times on a single ticket at 6 a.m. Saturday, and then 12 more times on a total of four tickets purchased from 5:58 to 5:59 p.m.
Each $2 ticket allows a choice of three sets of numbers.
Yesterday an employee who answered the phone at the Bethesda 7-Eleven said he hadn't heard that the store sold 15 winning tickets and wasn't working that day, so he had no idea who could have bought them.
In a telephone interview from his Catonsville home yesterday evening, Dale Ray, who had redeemed one of the winning Bonus Match 5 tickets, was still giddy.
"It's a very merry Christmas," he laughed.
Ray, 55, a construction worker and occasional player of the lottery's Pick 3 and Pick 4 games, had all but given up playing Bonus Match 5. He stopped playing three or four years ago, he said, after playing often but never getting a windfall.
"I got a stack of lottery tickets that I kept to remind me not to play anymore," he said.
But his younger sister Dorothy Ray persuaded him, and further advised him not to buy a quick-pick. So Dale Ray picked through some of his old lottery tickets and came up with the winning combination.
He sent his sister to the Indo Pak Grocery store on Broadway in Baltimore with $4 to buy two tickets. And when she called that night and told him he was a winner, he didn't believe it.
"I thought it was, you know, a little Christmas joke," he said. "I couldn't believe it was true. She kept saying it, so I said, `This can't be.'"
He might have won $50,000 but for the large number of winners.
"I was [disappointed] at first," he said. "But then when she said $28,000, I was as happy as I would have been if she said $50,000. So that was a little shocking, but all and all it was very good."
The winnings, Dale Ray said, are going "in the bank, bills and bank. And a Jamaica trip. I never been and I want to go."