The game consists of a board with a deck of 52 playing cards plus two jokers, with each card concealed by a number. If a player's ticket is drawn, the number written on their ticket is pulled, and the card is uncovered. If it's the Queen of Hearts, the ...
The McHenry VFW post’s Queen of Hearts raffle has reached $1 million in bets and is attracting thousands of players, a few new members — and at least one critic.
Hundreds of people crammed into the bingo hall for the weekly drawing Tuesday evening. Bettors have been lining up out the door and into the parking lot to buy the tickets, and some new veterans, primarily from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have not only come to play but have joined the club, board member Tom McCormack said.
“It’s become a social event in our town,” McCormack said. “The mayor, local bankers, we’re drawing from all over. People bring their friends, everybody has a good time and goes home with a smile on their face. It’s been a good thing for the community.”
The city of McHenry, with a population of about 26,000, 60 miles northwest of Chicago, isn’t the only small town with a big Queen of Hearts jackpot. But as the games grow in prize money and popularity, questions are being raised about whether they’re following the law.
Last year, the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in rural Morris, Ill., made news when its Queen of Hearts game exceeded $1 million in bets but had to temporarily shut down to get a license. That post listed its latest pot at $583,000.
The American Legion in Aviston, near St. Louis, had a similar raffle that exceeded $1 million last year before half the jackpot was won.
At least half a dozen downstate raffles might have been operating in violation of state law or local ordinance, the Belleville News-Democrat reported late last year.
In the southern Illinois village of Steeleville, the American Legion announced a winner of its $1.5 million pool last month. The game was then put on hold until the club reached a licensing agreement with the mayor this month, according to its Facebook web page. A new jackpot of $442,000 is touted for a drawing Thursday.
All this prompted gambling critic Kathy Gilroy, of Villa Park, to say that Queen of Hearts raffles have gotten out of hand, growing too big without sufficient regulation.
The very nature of the game violates state law, she said.
People stand in line to buy tickets for the Queen of Hearts raffle at McHenry VFW Post 4600 on May 22, 2018.
(Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
The game consists of a board with a deck of 52 playing cards plus two jokers, with each card concealed by a number. If a player’s ticket is drawn, the number written on their ticket is pulled, and the card is uncovered. If it’s the Queen of Hearts, the player wins the jackpot. If the Queen of Hearts remains hidden, the game continues and the pot rolls over until the following week.
The Illinois Raffles and Poker Runs Act requires organizers to state the time period during which raffle chances will be sold, and the time when winners will be chosen. Yet it’s impossible to know exactly when a Queen of Hearts winner will be named, because the game could have no jackpot winner for up to a year of weekly drawings.
In the case of McHenry, McCormack said, organizers start over with a new deck when someone draws the second joker. That happened about 11 months into the game, which has continued for another seven months so far, with 24 cards remaining.
In many cases, Gilroy said, local ordinances were drawn to match whatever raffle organizers wanted to do, rather than the other way around. In McHenry, officials said they raised the maximum winning prize to $1 million in March to accommodate the VFW game.
“The ordinance is following the event instead of setting a limitation on the event,” Gilroy said. “It shouldn’t work that way.”
Queen of Hearts organizers say players’ odds of winning are much better than the Illinois Lottery, but winners in McHenry get only 60 percent of the handle, or the amount bet. Twenty percent goes to the VFW to renovate and maintain its building, and 20 percent goes to the jackpot to start the next game.
McCormack said the entire operation is aboveboard, and officials have worked hard to use the game for the greater good.
Once a month, the post — one of the largest in the state, with about 380 members, McCormack said — holds a fundraiser for a different charity. Last week the post collected 6,000 items of food for the Midwest Veterans Closet in North Chicago. Previously the post held coat and toy drives, and the Girl Scouts sold cookies to people waiting in line.
“You’ve got to watch out what you wish for,” McCormack said. “We wished for this, but it’s straining our capabilities. Now we need 30 to 35 volunteers every week. Our parking lot is full. We’re struggling with the infrastructure. But it’s put us on the map.”
With no grand prize winner at Tuesday night’s drawing, the jackpot will roll over again — and get even bigger — for next week’s drawing.
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