Number's up for Md. Lotto

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Twenty-two years ago, a million bucks was a fortune. Not so much anymore.

And that, in short, explains the fall of Maryland Lotto.

When Lotto made its debut on Oct. 31, 1983, it was the big ticket in town. There were advertisements promoting its arrival. State government officials wished it good luck - if only in the hope it would help line the state's coffers. And Marylanders all over the state plunked down dollars in hopes of landing the huge windfall.

And many did. During its reign, Lotto - a six-digit game that for more than two decades was the vice of dedicated gamblers and occasional thrill-seekers alike - produced 623 millionaires (before taxes).

But as years passed and $1 million became less of an alluring prize, Lotto suffered. With the advent of more lucrative jackpots offered by multistate games such as Mega Millions and Powerball, Lotto sank. Its last drawing will be Wednesday night.

"We're saying goodbye to an old friend," said Buddy W. Roogow, director of the Maryland State Lottery. "Lotto's been a great game for us over the years. But like all good things, they sometimes run out of steam. They do come to an end at times, and Lotto has run out of steam."

In this case, the steam amounted to money.

Just 2 percent of the state lottery's revenue is generated from Lotto, Roogow said. At its peak in 1996, Lotto had $118 million in sales. In 2005, sales amounted to $34 million. Roogow attributes the steep decline in sales to the introduction of Mega Millions, which is played in Maryland and 11 other states, and periodically sees jackpots in excess of $100 million.

Plainly said, Marylanders want a shot at big money.

A winner's tale

Jeffrey Kimble, then principal of New Windsor Middle School in Carroll County, scored an $18 million payday back in 1994 when his numbers matched the winning Lotto ticket: 11, 26, 20, 32, 41, 48. He went to school that day and, according to a Sun article at the time, told his colleagues: "I've won the lottery. I'm taking the day off. I'm not retiring."

And he didn't. He stayed on as principal for four more years.

"I felt it was important to send the message that no matter what, it's important that you're a productive person, that you continue to set your goals," Kimble said in a recent interview. "And in the line of work I was in, working with young people, it was important for my children and the kids I was working with."

Kimble said he doesn't live extravagantly, despite his huge winnings.

Yes, he moved into a bigger home, traveled and donated to his church and charities. But he stayed in Westminster and maintains the same lifestyle, he said.

No, he hasn't kept playing Lotto. "Your chances of winning again are very slim," Kimble said.

He said he was unaware of Lotto's end but hoped the replacement, Multi-Match, would continue to spread the wealth.

"It's made a big difference in my life and my family's life," Kimble said of the Lotto game. "I didn't know it was ending, but I guess that the new game will be just as beneficial for people, and maybe more."

Lotto was born out of financial difficulty in 1983, to help cash-strapped Prince George's County and Baltimore.

What players want

In 1989, Lotto was revamped to make the odds of winning more difficult because of the frequency with which the jackpot was hit. People were winning a lot, but the jackpots weren't regularly growing beyond a couple of million dollars.

In focus groups these days, potential players say they want more chances to win, according to lottery officials. The officials hope Multi-Match will satisfy their demands.

Multi-Match, like Lotto, will be a six-number game with drawings on Wednesdays and Saturdays. But where Lotto tickets offer two lines of numbers, Multi-Match tickets will have three lines and allow players to "mix" them for prizes, except for the top jackpot.

Players will choose numbers from 1 to 43 (instead of 49), and tickets will cost $2 - double the price of Lotto. The top prize grows from $500,000, instead of $1 million. Lottery officials said Multi-Match gives players more chances at smaller prizes. The odds of winning any prize in Lotto are 1 in 27; the odds for Multi-Match are 1 in 8.5.

"People just don't get excited about jackpots in the triple digits," Roogow said. "So we felt the game had to change and become far less jackpot-focused. This game is set up to give the players more winning experiences."

Multi-Match might begin with a substantial lump sum. If no one wins the final Lotto jackpot on Wednesday, officials say the money will be added to Multi-Match's $500,000 jackpot.

"I kind of hope we have over a million dollars to transfer to the new game," Roogow said. "It would be fun to start with a bang."

Still faithful

At Goldberg's Liquors on Ritchie Highway in Brooklyn Park, three wooden tables are topped with Lotto, Keno and Mega Millions cards and pencils, and the clerks know most customers by name. On a recent afternoon, Lotto players debated the game's demise.

Philip Thayer, 58, a retired corrections officer, said he has played Lotto since its inception. And before Maryland had lottery games, he would drive to Pennsylvania to buy tickets. Thayer, a Lotto buff, immediately called out the name of the first Lotto jackpot winner when quizzed.

"I remember the first winner, Deloise Singletary," he recalled. "Call me the Rain Man - I keep those things in here," he said, pointing at his head.

Singletary, a nursing home aide and, at the time, a grandmother of six, won $5,538,649.95 on Jan. 14, 1984.

Thayer, who mostly toils in Keno and scratch-off tickets and recently won $200 playing Pick 4, said he plays Lotto only occasionally and won't be too upset when it ends.

Tyrone Mitchell, 40, a security officer who stopped by Goldberg's to choose numbers for the lottery's Pick 4 game, said he has played Lotto for years but never won more than a few dollars. Yet he's not happy the game is ending.

"I'm really upset about this Lotto thing," Mitchell said. "It's just not right."

That won't keep him from dreaming. "If I ever win some big money, I'm getting a tax lawyer, a regular lawyer and a financial consultant," Mitchell announced. "The rest of these people, they buy big cars, a house. No, not me. I'll be stingy. I won't be telling anyone. I won't. Not even my mother."

Mike Lowther, 56, said he too has been playing Lotto since its inception. Each week he spends $10 on the game, choosing a set of numbers and allowing the machine to pick the others. Despite his loyalty to Lotto, he wasn't heartbroken to hear of its demise. With a shrug of his shoulders, he asked, "They'll replace it, right?"

And in the next breath, he declared Multi-Match to be worth a try.

"I'll take a chance on it," Lowther said. "Sometimes change is good for you. I haven't hit Lotto, so maybe I'll hit this one."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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