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For D.C. Lottery scratch-off game players, fewer chances to win big

Mar 26, 2014, 2:00 pm

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Washington, D.C. Lottery

For three years, D.C. resident Deonte Byrd has been making an almost-daily trek to Log Cabin Liquor at Seventh and S streets NW to hunt for a million-dollar jackpot in the form of a scratch-off lottery ticket.

In 10 minutes on a recent day, Byrd bought $10 worth of tickets, won $7, cashed it in and lost his winnings on new tickets.

"This is an addiction. I'm addicted. I'm an addict," a joking Byrd, 25, said with a smile. The single father of three said he buys scratch-off tickets religiously before his shift at a cleaning company.

But for Byrd and thousands of other instant-game players, their quest — and potentially millions of dollars in contributions to the District's general fund from lottery sales — might be put on hold because the D.C. Council and financial officials have been unable to settle on a vendor to print the games known as scratchers.

Until a vendor is selected — D.C. officials, who've been working on the problem for nearly a year, hope to have a temporary fix by April — fortune-seekers have a rapidly dwindling supply of tickets to play.

District officials said they rejected bids from two vendors last year on technical grounds. One vendor failed to meet the city's requirement that winners of large city contracts subcontract at least 35 percent of the value to local firms; the second vendor's bid was 70 percent higher than the first.

The delay in selecting a vendor comes as District officials remain painfully aware of how closely lottery procurements are scrutinized. The District's awarding of a $228 million lottery contract in 2008 spurred a federal investigation and lawsuits.

And it's not just the affections of scratch-ticket players at stake. The District stands to lose $6 million a year that is typically generated from sales of scratchers. Lottery sales overall generate about $68 million a year for city coffers.

"We need to get moving on this before we completely run out," said the District's chief financial officer, Jeffrey S. DeWitt. "Some tickets have already run out. There's a bit left, and we need to do something soon."

Buddy Roogow, executive director of the D.C. Lottery, said the dwindling supply is already being felt at the retail level: Lottery officials have six brands of scratchers available to distribute to stores; typically there are 25.

Roogow said the supply of $1 and $3 tickets — games such as Triple It and Tic Tac 3 — should last about six weeks. Once that supply is exhausted, the only tickets left will be the $20 games such as Black II. And Roogow estimates that those tickets will run out in six months.

"We've lost a lot of variety that people are used to," DeWitt said.

The shortage also comes as public interest in scratchers has increased. Before the failed bids last year, sales of scratch-off tickets had increased by nearly one-third over the past five years and officials had hoped to expand the offerings.

"It's a growing part of our portfolio," Roogow said.

DeWitt has proposed temporarily allowing three vendors to share the contract to print the tickets while the District works on a long-term solution that folds scratchers into a larger gaming contract.

Although players and lottery officials might lament the shortage of games, some gambling experts say that fewer options are not necessarily a bad thing.

Marc N. Potenza, a psychiatrist and researcher at Yale University who recently published a paper on the effects of instant lottery tickets and young people, noted that March is National Problem Gambling Awareness Month and said it might be a good time to reflect on gaming habits.

"I have seen people in treatment for seeking help for excessive and problematic scratch-off ticket use," he said.

On a recent day at M Street Cards and Variety in Foggy Bottom, Lee Solomon was busy playing his scratchers.

He said he started buying a ticket occasionally about a decade ago after his uncle won a four-figure jackpot. And if District merchants run out of tickets, he'll take his money elsewhere.

"If they don't have scratchers here, I'll go to Maryland or Virginia," said Solomon, a mailroom employee at George Washington University.

It's players like Solomon who worry D.C. store owners.

Prav Saraff said he depends on the foot traffic at his Dupont Circle liquor store created by those who purchase scratch tickets. In recent weeks, he has noticed that his scratcher sales are down by about one-third.

"It's never been like this," said Saraff, 33, owner of 1 W. Dupont Circle Wine and Liquors. "It's frustrating because customers want to buy them, and we're in business to make money so we want to sell them."

He said his employees have been reaching out to D.C. Lottery for nearly two months.

"Whenever we call, they tell us the same thing," Saraff said, "that they're working on the problem and they'll get us some [scratchers] as soon as they're available."

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