Forget the mayor.
The most recognized man in downtown Nashville is “Queen of Hearts guy” Dan Heggemeier of the city’s American Legion post, who oversees a weekly jackpot drawing that has affected this town of 3,000 in the same way the shout of “Gold!” caused Easterners to lose their minds and set out for Californny.
“People are constantly coming up to me and asking, ‘How much is the pot? How much is it?’” said Heggemeier, who is bar manager of Post 110 at 533 E. Legion St., an unpaid, volunteer position that nevertheless has become an almost full-time job now that the Queen of Hearts raffle has attracted more than 4,000 players.
The jackpot, which has been growing all year, is expected to top $240,000 for this Wednesday’s weekly drawing.
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On drawing nights, before the cash haul is taken to a bank depository, there is enough money on hand that two plainclothes cops circulate among the crowd at the Legion post to deter robbers.
Sharon Markwardt, owner of Meier’s Market at 990 St. Louis St., said the drawing “has taken over the town. Everybody’s talking about it.”
And if she wins, she said she’ll sell her business and “work for the new owner.”
Tim and Yolanda Issler of Pinckneyville showed up at the Legion post at 10 a.m. Saturday, only to learn that it wouldn’t open until 3:30 p.m. But they said they would be back later to buy tickets. And if they win? The couple said they have three girls to put through college.
At promptly 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, some lucky player will stand in front of a crowd and select one of six remaining face-down playing cards on a board of 54 cards — a full deck plus two jokers. The $1-a-ticket jackpot that has been building all year is expected to top $240,000, said Heggemeier, a 73-year-old Vietnam combat vet. The way to win is to select, you guessed it, the queen of hearts.
The most number of tickets sold so far to a single purchaser, he said, was 800, but that person could actually represent a group of people contributing to share the prize, like players in the Illinois Lottery who sometimes buy tickets as a group and split if they win.
But unlike the lottery, the raffle is clearly a social event, with people like Heggemeier and other Legion officials taking on the aura of rock stars, if only to be stopped on the street and asked how much the jackpot has grown.
A queen of hearts raffle is a progressive raffle. Players buy raffle tickets, and one winning ticket is drawn. If the winner then selects the queen of hearts from a set of playing cards, the pot is won. If the queen of hearts is not selected, the pot rolls over to the next drawing. Playing cards are removed from the set as they’re drawn, and in the case of the Nashville Legion raffle, there are only six cards remaining.
Depending on how long the queen of hearts remains unpicked, the jackpot can get into the millions, as it did in October in Garettsville, Ohio, when a 69-year old woman won $3.4 million.
Some 600 to 700 people will be packed into the Legion post Wednesday, although not all will be able to actually see the drawing.
Heggemeier will use a special razor to slice around the sides of the protective cover hiding the face of the playing card selected, and the player will turn it over. If it’s not the queen of hearts, “Everybody will yell ‘Yay!’ because they can still win. They’ll cheer like crazy,” Heggemeier said.
The intent of the drawing is to raise money to remodel the Legion building, including installation of an accessible bathroom and enlarging the bar area. The Legion gets 10 percent of the overall ticket sales, and another 5 percent is held out to cover operating costs, including buying the board and tickets. The winner gets 85 percent. If a player wins but is not in attendance, the player gets only half of the jackpot.
As the queen of hearts craze took hold, Heggemeier said it was necessary to buy a currency counter and a much larger drawing drum. Besides the drawing to decide who gets to try to select the queen and potentially win the big prize, several other drum drawings are held, with the winner of each receiving $50.
If you get really lucky, then all that will stand between you and probably around $240,000 is a 6-1 shot to uncover the elusive queen of hearts.
Pick a number.