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Making a Million Takes Some Pull

Times Staff Writer

Armed with her slot machine-shaped brooch, rabbit’s foot and “energy-gathering” crystals, Joanne Pavia of Newport Beach walked into a Reno casino Tuesday and came out with more than $1 million.

For five hours, she had played the slot machines, competing against 26 others in a tournament at the Reno Hilton.

“We’re not really big gamblers at all,” said Pavia, who became a tournament qualifier when she won a $250,000 jackpot at the Las Vegas Hilton last Aug. 12 (her 40th birthday). “I just never understood why anybody would throw good money away.”

Despite just a few hours of sleep Tuesday night before returning home on a Hilton corporate jet Wednesday morning, Pavia was excited, although absent-minded.

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“Where’s your check?” her husband asked her. “Oh, it’s in my purse,” she said, suddenly realizing she had not yet deposited it for safekeeping.

The hotel gave contestants $300 for each of five elimination rounds.

Pavia said she could feel the “positive energy” of the crowd being drawn into a “lucky crystal,” a rock quartz crystal, she had placed on the machine.

Ken Pavia, who said he “kept a pretty level head” during the tournament, said he also could feel people in the crowd rooting for his wife. “The contestants had their backs to the crowd, so it was kind of boring,” he said. “But with Joanne, she moved so much that her back ended up with an entire personality.”

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“She’s a perfect contestant,” said Hilton spokesman Bill Barron, who watched the tournament. “She talks to the machine and everything.” Pavia wouldn’t say what she “told” the machine to make her win. “That’s a very personal question.”

But Ken Pavia said his wife became so attached to the machine she played in the final round that she hugged it after winning and tried to buy it, “but they wouldn’t let her.”

After she won the top prize, Hilton officials took Pavia into a heavily guarded room and poured a bowl of $100 bills--$1 million worth of them--over her head.

Pavia, who moved to California from Hilton Head, S.C., 10 months ago, qualified for the tournament on her second trip ever to Las Vegas. “We had some change we wanted to get rid of before going to our room,” Ken Pavia said. In getting rid of it, she won the $250,000 qualifying jackpot.

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At her oceanfront home filled with Oriental antiques, Pavia said she will use the money to help her husband, an investment banker, buy a bank and will give to “our favorite charities.”

Pavia said she and her family were planning a trip to Italy this spring to celebrate her original $250,000 winnings but decided to cancel because of recent terrorist bombings.

Instead, Pavia, her husband and three children--Kenneth, 19; Ria, 18; and Torin, 14--will travel to Las Vegas this weekend to watch the Larry Holmes-Michael Spinks boxing match. “That’s a big enough celebration,” she said.

Pavia’s winnings total $1,251,384. “I’ve had a very good year,” she said.

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