The neon-yellow pingpong balls danced inside the lottery machines.
A "six" was the first ball drawn in the Pick 3 game. "Next up, another six," said the drawing's host.
When the third ball to emerge in the Sept. 4 drawing was also a six, the Maryland Lottery found itself bedeviled — again — by a set of numbers that players seem to find tantalizing. The $1.75 million payout to players on 6-6-6 was more than 11 times the Pick 3 payout average.
Triple sixes — a horror-film staple with satanic connotations from the New Testament's Book of Revelation — are among a small set of numbers that players can't seem to get enough of, according to lottery statistics and interviews with state officials. The sixes are notorious enough in popular culture — and have been drawn enough — to make them stand out, analysts said.
Other triples or quadruples such as 7-7-7 and 1-1-1-1 also are played frequently. Many players say those represent their favorite single digit simply repeated for the Pick 3 or Pick 4, which both hold twice-daily drawings.
Lottery players often choose figures — license-plate numbers, birthdates, house numbers — suffused with meaning. They also frequently play the date — for example, 214 or 0214 on Valentine's Day.
There was a run in Maryland on 2-1-3-1 when Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st consecutive game in 1995 for the Orioles, breaking Lou Gehrig's record.
A 4-4-4 selection was popular nationally after Iran released 52 Americans in 1981 who had been held hostage for 444 days.
"They play superstitions, children's birthdays, numbers they saw on a license plate, the day of their anniversary," said lottery spokeswoman Carole Everett. "Triples are always popular, too. So if people do 1-1-1 and it hits 1-1-1, it's usually a pretty big payout."
Regular lottery player Andrew Paige, a retired tractor-trailer driver, said he won $25,000 on a $5 Pick 4 wager more than 10 years ago. He played 8-3-2-3 because it was the number of his truck that had recently been stolen.
"They say after something bad happens that something good happens," said Paige, 70, interviewed at a U.S. 40 BP station that has special parking for lottery players, a smoking deck and a players' lounge with free coffee.
A sign on the wall, surrounded by colorful lottery promotions, reads: "Try your luck with these games."
Paige said he likes playing triples or quadruples because — since the numbers are the same — he doesn't need to worry about what order they come up in.
Among his recent nonwinning plays was 6-6-6, which holds a special place in Maryland Lottery lore.
On June 6, 2006, so many players wagered on 6-6-6 that the lottery stopped selling midday and evening Pick 3 tickets with those three digits. Other sold-out combinations for that evening's drawing included other variations of the date — 066, 660, 6666, 6606 and 6066.
The lottery regulatory agency discontinues ticket sales on specific combinations when the state's liability for the sequences reaches its limit.
The maximum liability, formerly $7 million, was lowered several years ago to $5.5 million. Before the cap was reduced, the state was on the hook for $7 million when a sold-out 4-4-4-4 hit on Feb. 26, 2011.
None of the sold-out combinations came up on June 6, 2006. But 6-6-6 had been drawn three times the year before.
"People have an inborn tendency to think magically and superstitiously," said Fred Penzel, executive director of Western Suffolk Psychological Services in Huntington, N.Y. "They think, 'If I don't play it this next time, that will be the time that it will hit.' The allure of getting a very big return for a little investment is captivating."
In the last five years, no Pick 3 numbers have paid out more than 6-6-6 did on Aug. 21, 2010 — $3.2 million, according to lottery officials.
The 6-6-6 combination came up once each in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015. The only triple to come up more during that period was 9-9-9.
The number of times that 6-6-6 has been drawn — along with the publicity it receives each time — may influence players.
"All of the numbers come up with about the same frequency," said Robert Williams, a professor and gambling researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.
"People do tend to go with numbers that have won more often in the past. But it defies logic if you think you're going to win," Williams said. "If you're paying two bucks to have fun, that is legitimate and logical. To be fair, I think most people see it that way. They're buying a bit of hope."
Paige, who meets other regulars around a table most afternoons at the BP station, said his grandmother once told him a story containing a message applicable to playing the lottery.
In the story, "there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," he said. "But the closer you get to the end of the rainbow, the further away it gets. And that's the way playing numbers is — you never get to the end. But it's a good activity. It's for enjoyment and entertainment."
But for some players, the lottery can feel like a trap.
"The lottery can be as significant a problem as other forms of gambling," said Loreen Rugle, program director of the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling. "The scratch-off tickets are generally the most problematic. While one ticket is only a dollar, the total can add up quickly just like playing the 'penny' slots."
The odds of choosing the winning Pick 3 numbers in the correct order are 1 in 1,000, and the payout is $500 on a $1 bet. The Pick 4 odds are 1 in 10,000, and winners get $5,000. The games offer additional betting options featuring better odds and smaller payouts.
Big payouts, such as the ones on 6-6-6, represent good news-bad news scenarios for the state.
The wins can provide validation — an advertisement of sorts — that success stories are possible, if remote. At the same time, the state couldn't afford frequent big hits.
"It's a big windfall for the players, which is great," Everett said. "As long as it's not every day."
The lottery recorded sales of $1.76 billion in the fiscal year that ended June 30, a 2.2 percent increase over 2014. Prizes paid totaled $1.05 billion. The sales gain was fueled by the surging popularity of instant tickets, or scratch-offs, the sales of which topped $546 million, up nearly 14 percent to a new high.
The Pick 3 reported a profit of $101 million on sales of $240.9 million. The Pick 4's profit was $119.4 million on sales of $276.9 million. Overall, the state received $525 million from the lottery in the last fiscal year.
Playing 6-6-6 is usually a popular option around Halloween, because of superstitions surrounding the holiday.
But in other periods, Williams said he wondered about that choice of number.
"That's not something I'd heard of unless there are a lot of devil worshipers in Maryland," the professor said.
Pick 3 and Pick 4 by the numbers
Pick 3 odds — 1 in 1,000
Pick 3 payout — $500 on a $1 bet
Pick 4 odds — 1 in 10,000
Pick 4 payout — $5,000 on a $1 bet
Maryland Lottery's daily payout limit — $5.5 million
Some recent large Pick 3 payouts:
The Evening Sun
•6-6-6 on Sept. 4 — $1.7 million on $330,411 in sales
•7-7-7 on Aug. 30 — $1 million on $304,838 in sales
Largest recent Pick 3 payout — 6-6-6 on Aug. 21, 2010 — $3.2 million
A more typical Pick 3 payout — 5-2-7 on Oct. 22 — $180,375 on sales of $267,576
Total Pick 3 sales in last state fiscal year — $240.9 million
Total Pick 3 profit in last state fiscal year — $101 million
Source: Maryland Lottery