Purchase, N.Y. – Frank Farricker perches on a stool in the Cobble Stone, a favorite pub not far from his home across the state line in Greenwich, and suggests a lead for this story.
“I would like your story to be: ‘I was sitting at the bar with the chairman of the Connecticut Lottery when we won $100,000 in keno,’ ” Farricker says.
Lousy odds, but a nice angle.
To win $100,000 on a $1 bet, Farricker has to pick 10 of the 20 numbers about to be generated at random on a video screen by Quick Draw, the New York State Lottery’s version of keno.
His odds: about 1 in 9,000,000.
Farricker is here to talk to me about the Connecticut Lottery’s plans to join its counterparts in New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island in offering keno. With the bet of a dollar or two, he is about to give a quick tutorial on a game he hasn’t played since Gov. Dannel P. Malloy appointed him chairman of the lottery’s board in 2011.
(Farricker is barred from playing lottery games in Connecticut, but he says the lottery’s legal staff told him was OK to bet on Quick Draw in New York.)
With little public debate, the General Assembly authorized keno as part of the budget that took effect July 1, leaving the details to the Connecticut Lottery Corp., which netted $310 million for the state last year on gross revenues of nearly $1.1 billion.
The Connecticut Lottery’s biggest revenue source are scratch tickets, which have been around since 1975 and now generate $635 million in annual sales – or $233 for every resident above the age of 18.
Farricker says the lottery has studied keno for years, but it will take six months to design and roll out the game, which will require a secure built-from-scratch computer system connecting vendors to the lottery.
The lottery is expected to authorize initial funding later this month, with the game to be offered to the betting public in the spring of 2014.
Many, but not all, of the sites are likely to be bars and restaurants like the Cobble Stone, “pouring establishments” in the jargon of the industry.
Massachusetts boosted the percentage of adults playing keno from 7 percent in 2004 to 17 percent in 2012 by pushing sales from bars to the rest of its vendor network, according to a study by the University of Massachusetts.
The Connecticut lottery is trying to gauge interest from its existing network of vendors, which include gas stations, convenience and liquor stores, bars and supermarkets.
Farricker says that Stop & Shop, which sells lottery tickets, is unlikely to install keno screens, though he joked that keno could be a time-killer at the deli counter.
“Take a number, bet a number,” I suggest.
The promise of keno lies in the chance it will expand the market to people who never would think to buy a scratch ticket or a chance at one of the daily and weekly drawings that make headlines when the jackpots hit the stratosphere.
To those who study and treat compulsive gambling, that promise also is a danger. One fear is that by offering keno in restaurants, it will give children a taste of live gambling.
“The younger they start gambling, the more they are apt to have a problem,” says Mary Drexler, the executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling. “What safeguards will be put in place as keno is introduced?”
The lottery corporation says it has no data on who will be attracted to keno.
Diane Patterson, the vice president of marketing, says she has no research indicating whether offering a game in a social setting will draw new bettors, encourage more betting by existing customers or simply shift the market from existing games to keno.
There probably will be a bit of all three, she said.
In New York, Quick Draw bets were 6.5 percent of the lottery’s gross sales of $8.9 billion in 2012, up from 5.9 percent in 2011 and 5.4 percent in 2010.
In Massachusetts – the home of the most successful lottery in the nation, at least judged by its annual per capita sales – the $790 million wagered on keno last year was 17 percent of the lottery’s gross revenues of $4.7 billion.
Connecticut’s legislature estimates only that keno should net the state $27 million, starting in 2015.
At the Cobble Stone, a pub down the hill from the lush corporate campus of Pepsico, business was slow as Farricker and I arrived, so slow that the waitress, Betsy Kis, says she was thinking about playing Quick Draw.
On a flat panel video screen above the jukebox, a digital clock silently counts down to the next game. Every four minutes, from 4 a.m. to 3:25 a.m., the New York lottery beams out a new game to nearly 8,000 vendors.
Kis, who says she won $110 playing Quick Draw on her first night at the Cobble Stone a “ridiculous” number of years ago, says she tries to refrain, not always successfully.
“I used to play more when I first started working here,” Kis said. “Then it started getting expensive.”
She and the bartender, Ken Hirasaki, exchange looks and mention a departed colleague, who had “issues” with gambling. Hirasaki says he doesn’t gamble, due to family lore about an ancestor who literally lost the farm outside Tokyo long, long ago.
Farricker and I are the only two customers at the bar and her shift is about to end, so Kis reaches for the betting slips that are within easy reach, next to glass containers of salty Pepperidge Farm goldfish. Farricker already has one.
“I’m playing 10-spots, because it’s more fun than anything else,” Farricker says, filling out his slip with a stubby golfer’s pencil. “Sometimes I play my birthday, 12 and 30, just to see.”
There are slight variations, but the game generally is based on picking numbers from a field that runs from one to 80. In New York, a bettor can play anything from one spot to 10, wagering $1 to as much as $102.
A $1 bet on a one-spot game – meaning your one number needs be among the 20 generated from the 80-number matrix – pays off $2. A one-spot bet has a one-in-four-chance of winning.
The same bet on a five-spot game pays $2 for hitting one number, $20 for four and $55 for five.
Kis is filling out a slip for a five-spot.
I announce that my first-ever keno bet will be a 10-spot, where picking five correct numbers yields $2, six gets $10, seven $45, eight $300, nine $5,000 and ten $100,000.
“I’ll just do a quick pick,” I say, meaning the computer will generate my 10 numbers.
“Oh, boo,” Kis says.
From behind the bar, Hirasaki talks about his favorite numbers.
“I thought you didn’t play,” I say.
“Once in a blue moon.”
“My pick’s in already,” Kis said.
“You’ve got a minute and 43 seconds,” Farricker tells me, glancing at the Quick Draw screen.
Farricker is done with his slip. I am flashing back to sitting for the SATs as a high school student, tensing as time ran out.
“Good luck to you,” Hirasaki tells Farricker. “You’re going to win big now.”
“One of us is going to win, I can tell,” Kis says. “It’s gonna happen.”
“Take it easy, now,” Hirasaki says. “I don’t have much money in the till.”
Farricker and the bartender talk about the New York rules for payouts as I try to think of 10 numbers that hold meaning for me: ages of my wife and kids, an old address…
“You have 40 seconds to get that in,” Kis prods.
I scratch the last few boxes and hand Hirasaki my slip with a dollar. Hirasaki scans my slip and hands me a receipt. The exchange took maybe five seconds.
“Here we go,” Kis says.
She says players usually find a stool with a view of the screen, but she can’t see without twisting her head.
“I’m not going to look,” she explains. “It’s better when I don’t look.”
The game is on. Our focus — Kis peeks — turns to the video screen above the jukebox.
A ball appears on the screen, falling toward the field of 80 numbers. There is no sound. Anyone staring at the TV above the bar tuned to ESPN wouldn’t notice.
The first ball lands.
Farricker calls out the numbers.
When the last ball falls, Farricker and Kis scan their betting slips, then look at the screen. One thing is clear: I’m not going to be able to write story about the Connecticut Lottery chairman winning $100,000 on a $1 bet.
“I got four numbers,” Farricker says.
“I got two out of five, which is nothing,” Kis says.
“If I got one more number, I would have gotten two bucks,” Farricker says.
I got one, I think. I am quickly scanning the screen and my ticket. Yes, I got one out of 10.
None would have paid $5. One pays nothing.
Farricker smiles and corrects me: “It’s a non-winning experience in the parley of the lottery.”
With her one betting slip, Kis had paid $3 and made $1 bets on three games, using the same numbers. A bettor can play up to 20 consecutive games or draws with one slip.
“I got two more games,” Kis says. “That’s going to be the big winner, next game.”
Farricker and I reach for fresh betting slips.
Just one more.