VFW manager Dwayne Lundgren marched out of the barroom with a million-dollar mystery raised above his head.
Tucked inside a brown envelope marked with the number 48 was one of 24 cards left in the Queen of Hearts Raffle at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4600 in McHenry, where hundreds of residents from nearby neighborhoods and beyond flocked for a chance at the game’s life-altering jackpot: $1,046,554.
The essence of the Tuesday night spectacle was simple: If the Queen of Hearts showed up in that little brown envelope, someone would leave the building with a claim on 60 percent of the pot – $627,932.
After a 33 percent cut to the taxman, that meant a check for $420,714.
Lundgren delivered the envelope to the VFW’s senior vice commander and emcee, 44-year-old Ben Keefe, for the big reveal: The nine of diamonds.
The crowd erupted. Women screamed in joy. Men threw fists in the air. The jackpot would grow again. Others cringed and tossed their losing tickets in the trash.
The next Queen of Hearts drawing now is set for Tuesday. And this time, the grand prize is $1,132,090.
“I’ll be back next week,” said Michele DuBois, a McHenry resident who spends $20 a week on Queen of Hearts tickets at 3002 W. Route 120 – ground zero for throngs of folks hoping to win a grand prize that has ballooned in epic fashion over the past two years.
“It’s like the lottery,” said Lundgren, a former warehouse manager in Bensenville, where he managed the movement of vinyl flooring. “You have a better chance of winning here.”
That’s why Darlene Zobrist showed up Tuesday to buy 30 tickets. A 61-year-old bus driver from Fox Lake, Zobrist heard about the drawing through word of mouth.
“That’s a lot of money,” said Zobrist, who would use the money to make life easier for her two grown sons and their children. “Just to sit in there makes me nervous. That’s why I’m leaving.”
Outside, drivers snaked around the VFW and surrounding neighborhoods looking for parking. News trucks waited for the quirky, rural scoop.
Sipping beers, blue-collar ticket-holders waited to see if they could send their kids to college, buy a house or quit their jobs.
Inside, people stood in line to buy tickets. The VFW sold them until
10 minutes before the 8 p.m. drawing.
Rich Sawisch, a 65-year-old Wonder Lake man and motor repairman, imagined his life with the jackpot in his pocket: “I would retire.”
The VFW launched its first Queen of Hearts in April 2016 but did not award its first jackpot – $32,000 – until October 2016. The Queen of Hearts jackpot gained more attention in 2017 after city officials changed gambling ordinances twice for the game to allow a bigger jackpot.
The city of McHenry’s original ordinance limited raffle payouts to a maximum of $100,000. But in 2017, city officials upped the maximum payout to $500,000 and in March upped it again to $1 million.
Queen of Hearts is a game where 54 shuffled cards – a full deck plus two jokers – are put in brown envelopes and pinned to a board. Each envelope is marked with a number and shuffled again in a process Lundgren called “confidential.”
“It’s a three-shuffle process,” Lundgren said
Players write down the card number they wish to open should their ticket pop up.
If both jokers are pulled, the game resets, but the jackpot stays the same. That scenario happened almost
11 months after the current raffle began, allowing Tuesday’s jackpot to become the stuff of legend.
The winner takes home 60 percent of the pot, and the VFW gets 40 percent:
20 percent of the money is used as a seed for the next raffle and the other 20 percent as a revenue stream to improve the building.
Lundgren said he plans to use the
20 percent to bring the bathrooms up to the standards set by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and build a beer garden.
Tickets for the May 29 raffle are on sale behind the bar during all hours of operation at 3002 W. Route 120. The hall is open every day from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tickets are 6 for $5.