Wednesday, May 21, 2014 | 2:02 a.m.n
If you went to the Palm Beach Kennel Club on May 8 and plunked down a $2 trifecta bet on the 2-6-8 dogs in the first race, you would have won $688.
Or if you bought a $1 ticket on the Florida Lottery’s Play 4 game that same night and correctly guessed 3-3-5-3, you would have won $5,000.
But the serious gambling in Palm Beach County for that night was going on inside a small VFW hall in Boynton Beach.
Hundreds of bettors — vets and non vets alike — had gathered there for the weekly drawing of the Queen of Hearts Raffle, where a $1 ticket would make one lucky guy the winner of a jackpot of more than $70,000.
And it wasn’t a drawing made without controversy.
“Every club in the country does this, and we’ve done it for about three years,” said Donald Gromko, the quartermaster and chief financial officer of VFW Post 5335. “Unfortunately for us, the pot went so high because nobody picked the queen, and we got the publicity.”
The way the game works is that a deck of playing cards is displayed in a locked case. Each card is placed face down and attached individually with a push pin, with the back side of each card numbered 1 through 54 to account for the entire deck plus the two jokers.
Two locks are put on the case and two officers of the club are given the keys. It takes both keys to open the case.
Players write their names on $1 tickets that get put into a hopper. Players get to buy as many tickets as they want. And every Thursday at 6 p.m., somebody at the club selects one of the raffle tickets from the hopper.
The person whose ticket gets selected chooses one of the cards inside the locked box.
The box is opened and the card is turned over. If it’s the queen of hearts, the player wins the jackpot, which is just a part of all the money wagered.
“We get a piece of it, and then we have charities that get it,” Gromko said. “Our main charity is the VFW National Home for Children.”
Gromko declined to say what percentage of the club’s take goes to charity, or how much money is kept and donated through the raffle.
If the person who wins the weekly raffle doesn’t pick the queen of hearts, the nonwinning card is removed from the board, the case is locked up again, and the money wagered rolls over into the next week’s drawing.
The Boynton Beach raffle went on like this every week for nearly a year. Each Thursday at 6 p.m., another card would be picked from the locked case, and it wouldn’t be the queen of hearts.
By last week, there were only four cards left on the board. And as the remaining cards on the board had dwindled during the past few weeks, the word was out, and the club started getting swamped on Thursday nights by nonmember gamblers who saw this as a great opportunity to make some serious money.
“Once the pot got to $40,000, the place has been a madhouse,” said one of them, who didn’t want to be identified. “The place was jammed to the rafters.”
Club officers were reluctant to speak about it.
“You can’t talk to anybody,” said Bobby Ratuis, the club’s top officer. “I’m the commander.”
But people who were there May 8 confided in me about the chaotic final night of the raffle, which was eventually won by a young, nonclub member who showed up and bought $1,000 worth of tickets for the drawing.
When one of his tickets was pulled from the drum, people in the room demanded that he show the other half of the ticket stub to demonstrate that it was a valid ticket issued by the club, and not just some other yellow raffle ticket that could be purchased in a store.
The man dumped his enormous pile of ticket stubs on the pool table but couldn’t come up with the other half of the picked stub, witnesses said.
“He was searching for it for 15 minutes,” said one of the other gamblers there. “And people are yelling, ‘Draw another one.’ There was a lot of worked up people there.”
The issue was resolved by allowing the man to pick a playing card from the locked box, even without the other half. And he picked the card with a “41” on the back, the card that turned out to be the queen of hearts, winning him a jackpot of $70,100.
The state regulates gambling, and the Florida Attorney General’s office has, in the past, issued rulings from time to time on games run by nonprofits.
Three years ago, that office ruled that a VFW hall in Panama City couldn’t operate electronic nonskill games of chance because unlike some permitted bingo games, those games don’t qualify for an exemption to “the general prohibition against gambling” in state law.
One of the bettors said he’s not sure about the future of Thursday night card raffles at the Boynton Beach VFW hall.
“I think they’re going to be rethinking their rules,” he said.
Frank Cerabino writes for the Palm Beach Post