Scratch-off Florida Lottery tickets are one of the quickest, easiest ways for gamblers to take a chance at riches — and, for the most part, come up empty.
But sometimes demand can create lottery bottlenecks at places such as your neighborhood Publix customer service counter.
That's why state leaders are making the instant gratification of scratch-off tickets even more instant — installing 1,000 ticket vending machines at lottery retailers across Florida, primarily supermarkets.
''It helps both our retailers and our players because it is a convenience for both,'' Florida Lottery spokeswoman Connie Barnes said.
The lottery contributed a record $1.28 billion to state education funding during the last fiscal year — a number that benefited significantly from the addition of the popular Powerball game in January.
The machines could begin showing up in Miami-Dade and Broward counties as early as Monday, with the state predicting an additional $3.4 million in annual lottery profits from its new, automated sales team.
The state has not yet released its South Florida vending machine locations. The machines, only slightly smaller than a soft drink vending machine, accept bills only — no coins or credit cards.
Vending machine players can enjoy the same range of games — from $1 Triple Win tickets to $600 Million High Roller tickets costing $30 each — that they'll find standing in line, with the same rules (and, alas, the same odds of winning). For the High Roller game, the overall odds of winning are 1-in-2.43, but the odds of winning a cool million dollars are a less-encouraging 1-in-1,404,000.
Though the new lottery machines might look similar to those that dispense soda and candy bars, the state says it will make sure children — a key consumer for those other machines — stay away from lottery games.
By law, lottery players must be at least 18 to purchase scratch-off games. Florida's new vending machines will come equiped with a remote control switch that allows store clerks to shut off the machine if a minor attempts to use it.
Dan Adkins, the chief executive officer of Hallandale Beach's Mardi Gras Casino, said such safeguards pale in comparison to what the state requires his facility to do — Mardi Gras and other casinos use licensed security guards to check ID's (and face potential fines if they're lax in this regard).
Of the lottery machines, Adkins said, ''We're going to have a grocery clerk watching while she's also doing cashier duties? That's a joke.''
While Powerball has helped overall lottery revenues, sales of scratch-off tickets are down slightly from last year. Lottery officials are confident, however, that their new vending machines will make the difference.
If the expected profits indeed materialize, it would mark a dramatic turnaround for lottery vending machines in Florida, which were implemented once before. During that first go-round, which lasted from 1997 to 2001, most of the machines actually lost money.
How is that possible? For one, each machine costs hundreds of dollars a month to lease from a private vendor, requiring healthy sales to draw a profit. And some players who buy from the machines aren't new customers — they waited in line for their scratch-off tickets before — so their vending machine business doesn't actually boost the lottery's bottom line.
Lottery officials are confident this attempt at automated ticket sales will work, and indeed, such vending machines are found in most states that offer lottery games.
Florida's new, improved vending machines have been updated to hold more tickets and also allow for easier restocking by employees at their respective retail locations.
One reason the machines didn't succeed last time, lottery spokeswoman Shelly Safford said, was that retailers weren't keeping them stocked with the full array of scratch-off games.
''You have to have tickets in it for people to be able to purchase the tickets,'' Safford said.
There's at least one sure winner in this new lottery endeavor: Rhode Island-based GTech Corp., which will lease the vending machines to the state at a cost of nearly $4 million a year. GTech's lobbying corps includes Brian Ballard, a past fundraiser for Gov. Charlie Crist.
Though not often thought of as ''hard-core'' gambling, lottery games are indeed a problem for gambling addicts. After slots and card games, the lottery ranks third among addictions reported by callers to the state's compulsive-gambling help line.
Pat Fowler, head of the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, said her organization has fielded calls from lottery addicts who ''buy so many tickets that they actually go from location to location because they're embarrassed to buy them all at one location.''
With lottery vending machines, ''all they have to do is walk up to a machine to do it.''
In an e-mail addressing the addiction issue, lottery spokesperson Jackie Barreiros stressed that scratch-off games ''are designed to be a fun low-cost form of entertainment.'' Barreiros added that the Florida Lottery helps fund the state's compulsive gambling council — to the tune of more than $1 million a year.
''We hope that players who need help utilize this resource,'' Barreiros wrote.