ROUSES POINT — The leaders of American Legion Post 912 are desperate for a special woman to emerge in their lives.
“No one has found her yet,” Legion Commander Robert St. John said during a recent visit.
The lady that St. John and his colleagues at the legion are waiting for is none other than the Queen of Hearts.
The Queen of Hearts, as in a deck of playing cards.
The Queen of Hearts, as in that’s the card you must draw to win the $100,000 grand prize in the post’s fundraiser raffle.
“There is a 1 in 54 chance to win when we start the game, and it’s down to three cards,” legion Treasurer Dennis Harrison said, explaining that the 54 cards comprise a regular deck plus two jokers.
Such a large prize has made Post 912 the most popular place in the North Country in recent weeks.
“We’ve created a monster,” St. John said.
“When I leave here on a Friday night, I don’t want to see this place for awhile.”
St. John, Legion First Vice Commander Joe Proulx and Harrison relaxed in a rare moment of downtime at the Pratt Street establishment this week and reflected on the hysteria.
Harrison explained that the legion was looking for a good fundraiser and discovered the Queen of Hearts on the state’s list of approved games for nonprofit organizations to host.
Other groups in the area have also played the game with success in recent years, which convinced Harrison and the others to give it a try.
The pot builds as the card remains in the deck. The first two games last year ended relatively early, with jackpots of $750 and $1,968 being given out.
But this one turned out to be a grand slam.
“That’s the thing with this game. It could be drawn the first week or it could be drawn the last week. You just don’t know,” Harrison said.
HOW IT WORKS
The way the game is played is simple. People buy raffle tickets for a chance to pick a card, any card.
The tickets sell for $1 each, and the players put their name, address and phone number on the back.
The tickets are stuffed into two wooden boxes handcrafted by legion member Dick Baker.
On game day — each Friday at 6:30 p.m. — a ticket is pulled from the box, and the winner steps up for a chance at the Queen.
If the ticket-holder is not present and he or she has not indicated on the ticket which card to draw (the remaining cards have been numbered), a legion officer will pull out a numbered pill from a small bottle, and the card with that number will be chosen.
The cards are all hung up in rows inside a locked glass case, also built by Baker.
The past few Fridays have been a scene, and it plays out like a mini coronation in this way: A legion officer will unlock the case, take out the chosen card and hold it up high, unseen, for a few seconds, creating a pounding moment of suspense.
Then, with a flick of his wrist, the crowd either erupts in joy or groans in disappointment.
“We had one guy pick the Queen of Diamonds one week, and everyone got all excited because they saw a red queen, but it was the wrong one,” St. John said.
The game started 47 weeks ago with the drawing of three cards the first Friday night. No one won that first week.
A single card was then drawn every week until week 26, when three more were chosen. Still no one won.
Since week 26, a single card has been drawn each Friday. Still, no one has won.
Three cards are left, and the fever is mounting.
“We have guys selling tickets steady from 10 a.m. when we open until we close at about 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m.” Proulx said.
People have been coming to Post 912 from far and wide to get in on the action.
“Burlington, Montreal, Massena, AuSable,” they come from all over, Harrison said.
There are even players from Alaska and Germany who have been sending money the past few weeks for someone to purchase them tickets.
“They know people from here, and they heard about the game and want to play,” Harrison said.
Tickets go on sale the moment after a non-winning card is selected, and they hardly slow down all week.
Things really pick up on Thursdays and Fridays.
It’s nothing for someone to walk into the bar and plunk down $100 for tickets.
“I had a guy come in with 200 singles and — not that I didn’t trust him — but I had to count out each bill,” Harrison said.
Proulx said the most he sold at one time was $330 worth.
“A lot of places have office pools, and they collect money from everyone and send someone in to buy tickets for all of them,” he said.
CHANCE FOR SUCCESS
Clarence Hemingway and Joan Bulriss recently bought $100 worth of tickets. They spent a few minutes at a table stamping each ticket with their vital information.
“For $14.98 at Wal-Mart, I got this (stamper), and it sure is handy,” Hemingway said.
They are not alone, as many players have purchased stampers and ink pads.
“If the queen is picked, then there will be a lot of crying,” Hemingway said.
If he wins, a new truck and maybe a vacation will be in order.
“It’s better odds than the lottery, so why not try?” he said.
BOOST FOR LEGION
For the legion, the game has certainly felt like winning the lottery.
The post keeps 40 percent of each ticket sale while the remaining 60 percent goes into the grand prize, which is capped by the state at $100,000
The post gets to keep all the proceeds after the cap is met, which happened three weeks ago. So far, that’s at least $67,000, Harrison said, and they expect it will grow substantially.
Not to mention the extra cash the bar is taking in.
“We have four bartenders and a cook working on Fridays,” Proulx said.
The capacity of the legion building is 167 people, and bracelets are given out on Fridays to keep track of how many people are jammed in. Last week, a large tent was erected in the parking lot to accommodate the crowd.
“People have been good, and we haven’t had any complaints yet,” St. John said.
The legion will use the money raised to do some renovations on the older part of the building, which has been there since 1920, and to expand the parking lot.
A new sound system and movie screen will be installed to host movie nights for area kids.
“We let people use this place for free a lot, and we want to make it nice,” St. John said.
The rest will go to area charities and organizations, including many veterans groups, in the form of donations.
“That’s what the American Legion is all about,” St. John said. “Taking care of our veterans and our communities.”
So far in 2013, about $20,000 has been given out, and Proulx expects they will eclipse the $46,000 they donated for various causes last year.
“We don’t keep the money,” he said.
While worn out by the rigors of running such a popular game, St. John is grateful for the success.
“It certainly has given us a lot of exposure to people who never knew we were here,” he said.
Email Joe LoTemplio:firstname.lastname@example.org