RALEIGH, N.C. — Three numbers are providing a hobby for lottery players and a big win for the North Carolina state lottery.
The lottery's Pick 3 game, in which players buy chances at matching a three-digit number, offers the lowest payouts of any of the lottery's drawing games. The maximum win is $500. But the game has been a popular draw for players, who spent more than $200 million on those 50-cent and $1 tickets last year.
Lotteries in most states recently reported a downturn in revenue, though North Carolina has bucked the trend partly because of the surprise performance of the Pick 3 game. Sales have been strong despite the recession.
The lottery knew it had something big with the Pick 3 game, which is why officials added an afternoon drawing to accompany the nightly game in March 2008.
Lottery executive director Tom Shaheen said that based on the experiences of other lotteries, he expected to see a 10 percent increase in sales. He's at a loss to explain the sustained 40 percent increase in Pick 3 sales since the second drawing started.
In September, the lottery sold $13.2 million worth of Pick 3 tickets.
In the most recent fiscal year, players bought nearly $209 million worth of tickets, a similar amount as the Powerball.
"The Pick 3 player is a different type of player," Shaheen said. "They like their two-times-a-day draws."
Pick 3 players have their systems and they rarely let the computer select numbers for them.
Only 8 percent choose that "quick pick" option compared to 71 percent of Powerball players, according to lottery officials. Players like to bet on triples such as 7-7-7.
Some players like the fact that Pick 3 offers better odds of winning compared to other games. Some claim they can even develop a feel for which randomly selected numbers are due to hit.
"The chances are better," said Anthony Leach, 46, of Raleigh, who plays Pick 3 at least three times a week. "It's sort of a pattern."
The odds of matching three randomly selected digits 0-9 in exact order to win $500 are one in 1,000.
The game also allows a 50-cent play option that would win up to $250. Players can also elect to try to match the three digits in any order, which wins a smaller prize.
Philip Drayton, 60, says he plays three times a week. Drayton, a retired education therapist at Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, has his special numbers: 5-5-5- or 9-1-1.
He won $80 on the game early last week but came up empty in the Wednesday afternoon drawing. "There's no system," said Drayton, a regular player of several lottery games. "It's chance."
Drayton buys his tickets at the C Mini Mart in Raleigh, which is a top seller of Pick 3 tickets in the state. A steady stream of customers came into the store on a recent afternoon and headed to the mart's dedicated lottery ticket register.
Customers joked with store owner Warren Liles and clerk Lonnie Jeffries, who figured he sold 100 lottery tickets in the first two hours of his Wednesday shift.
Scratch-off cards sell big
Players picked out scratch-off tickets and tendered the little paper slip used to buy Pick 3 tickets.
Many kept their slips in a dedicated wallet.
Sam Snell, 31, came to claim his $80 win from that afternoon's drawing.
One of his regular numbers, 2-6-1, had hit. Snell, who works for a parking lot company in Raleigh, plays Pick 3 at least three times a week. He says he doesn't take it too seriously.
"If I win, I win," he said.
Instant, scratch-off tickets are by far the lottery's biggest seller, accounting for more than 61 percent of total sales. And many Pick 3 players play other games. Drayton bought two of the new $20 scratch-off tickets in his two visits to the Mini Mart last week. The first ticket won $30. The second didn't net a prize.
The lottery profits go to four educational programs, but not everyone is thrilled to see more sales.
Bill Brooks, president of the N.C. Family Policy Council, said running a game twice a day is a tactic meant to attract serious gamblers.
"I'm sure if they drew every hour they would get more action than they do with twice a day," Brooks said.
"So we can go out and get a few more million from more of North Carolina citizens who are addicted to gambling and become more addicted. What's to celebrate here? Nothing."
Shaheen said many North Carolinians were ready for games such as Pick 3 because the surrounding states already offered them.
"We're basically trying to provide what the players want and what they see," he said.
Carolina Pick 3
The game: Players try to match three digits between 0 and 9. Players can elect to try to match numbers in exact order or in any order. Tickets cost 50-cents or $1, and the biggest payout is $500 for matching the three numbers, in order, on a $1 ticket.
Drawings are every night and all days but Sunday at 3 p.m.
The odds: The jackpot odds are 1 in 1,000.
The sales: Pick 3 sells as well as Powerball, with each game accounting for about $209 million or 16 percent of lottery sales last year.