Pronto Lotto does not look like much. It sits outside the entrance to a busy subway stop in Elmhurst, Queens, supplying passers-by with cereal, chips and milk like any other bodega.
But Pronto Lotto's real business takes place in the carpeted, hushed area where its most devoted customers watch video screens from a scattering of tall silver tables, hour after hour, day after day.
The players — mostly men, about a dozen at any given time — come on their lunch breaks or after work to study the screens, which are programmed with the Quick Draw lottery game, and flash a new set of winning numbers every four minutes. They have helped make Pronto Lotto the top Quick Draw vendor in the state, selling $3.3 million worth of tickets last year, more than $1 million more than the second busiest location, a World Books shop in Penn Station.
Some stay for just a few minutes. Others play for the length of a workday, repeatedly traversing the few yards between their seats and the cash register as they hand the next wager to a clerk with a dollar bill or two, and return to wait.
"It's like my job, 24 hours," Pablo Martinez, 42, joked to an employee on a recent afternoon, flicking yet another losing ticket into a trash can. He had been there since 10 a.m., and did not leave until dinnertime.
Quick Draw has been so popular since its introduction in New York in 1995 that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed eliminating the last remaining restrictions on where the game can be played. Doing so would generate $12 million for the state in the first year, and $24 million in subsequent years, according to a memo explaining the governor's proposal. Last year the game, which requires players to match numbers generated randomly by a computer, contributed $138 million to the state education budget, up from $103 million just two years earlier.
The proposal has revived the debate over state-sanctioned gambling, amid a nationwide expansion of gambling opportunities of all types, from lotteries to casinos to, most recently, online betting.
Senator John J. Bonacic, the Middletown Republican who is chairman of the State Senate's Committee on Racing, Gaming and Wagering, has said he has no objection to expanding Quick Draw. But anti-gambling groups have forcefully criticized the proposal, arguing that Quick Draw, like other forms of gambling, extracts money from the people who can least afford to risk it, while also fostering gambling addiction.
As the state has sought to profit more from the game, the Legislature has lifted most of the original restrictions, allowing it to expand from restaurants and bowling alleys to bars and large stores, and authorizing play almost around the clock.
The remaining restrictions prohibit businesses that do not serve alcohol from offering Quick Draw unless they occupy more than 2,500 square feet, and require players to be 21 years old in places serving alcohol. (In other states, the minimum age is 18.) Removing those rules would allow small stores to offer Quick Draw, and would be likely to generate more sales in New York City, where per capita revenues are low compared with the rest of the state.
While the ZIP codes with the highest earnings tend to be in New York City — the neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is tops in the state, doing almost twice the business of the second-place ZIP code, northwest Staten Island, according to lottery figures — that is because city neighborhoods are far denser than those upstate.
The proposal would also allow players as young as 18 to play Quick Draw in bars, even though they cannot legally drink there.
"The restrictions have proved cumbersome and unnecessary, and have substantially reduced the amount of earnings that would otherwise be generated by the game," said the governor's memo.
Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, a Brooklyn Democrat who is chairman of the Assembly's Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Committee, warned in a statement that the age change could result in a generation of new addicts. About one million New Yorkers have already been identified as "problem gamblers," he said, noting that Quick Draw has been called "video crack."
With its near-instant results and ease of play, Quick Draw rivals slot machines in addictive potential, said Natasha D. Schüll, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology anthropologist who recently published a book about machine gambling addiction. She said studies showed that players could become addicted to repetitive games three to four times faster than they would to other forms of gambling.
Still, other research suggests that less than 1 percent of the population is addicted to gambling, a number that has not significantly changed despite its growing availability. The budget memo notes that Quick Draw "has proved to be no more likely to be abused than other lottery games."
Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, said the proposal did no more than make the rules about where lottery games could be played, and at what age, consistent. "Our proposal simply corrects an inequity," he said.
Sixty percent of every dollar wagered is paid out in winnings; retailers earn 6 percent; lottery administration costs take 9 percent and 25 percent goes to the education budget.
At the city's highest-grossing locations, like Pronto Lotto and a cluster of grocery stores in the Chinese section of Sunset Park, it is not uncommon for players, who are overwhelmingly men, to spend hundreds of dollars in one sitting. Bonus days, when winnings on bets of $10 or more are automatically increased by 50 percent, draw crowds. Signs at every location announce past triumphs: a $10,000 win at one, $12,000 at another. For the vast majority of players, however, such jackpots are rare.
At World Books in Penn Station, the second-highest grossing vendor in the state last year, a longtime employee, Manik Miah, said several of the store's Quick Draw regulars spent $800 to $1,000 at every sitting.
In three years of playing Quick Draw and other lottery games every day, Walter Perez, 41, a construction worker who was playing at Pronto Lotto recently, has scored one significant prize: $100. He spends $40 to $50 in a sitting when he is employed, but just watches the numbers when he is not. Like other regulars, he estimates that he has spent many times his total winnings pursuing big prizes.
But he does not say he is losing; he thinks of it as investing in future wins, he explained. "One day!" he said, smiling.