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Big Numbers in Line

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With dollar bills at the ready, the hopeful were buying.

And on a big day like Wednesday they weren’t heading just anywhere for their chance at the second biggest jackpot in state lottery history. They were crowding into a tiny liquor store in a Yorba Linda strip mall that has a reputation for making millionaires.

Other places in Orange County have sold more lottery tickets. Other places can boast of bigger winners. But no other place in the county can brag of selling more winning Super Lotto tickets since the game was first played in 1986 than Casa de Liquor & Deli.

“Every now and then it’s nice to indulge yourself with your Walter Mitty fantasy,” said Dave Young, a doctor who likened himself and others at the liquor store buying Super Lotto tickets to the James Thurber character with a small job and big dreams.

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“He was just a little milquetoast, regular guy. But inside his head he was Superman. I figure we’re all dreaming dreams like that. I mean, why not?”

But for as long as tickets were on sale, the little store that has sold three Super Lotto tickets worth $9.2 million in the last decade offered the slim chance that lightning might strike it again.

“I heard through the grapevine that people have hit it big at this place here,” said Ardene McAlevey , a secretary at a Pacific Bell office in Anaheim who was at the store to buy tickets for a group of co-workers.

“I don’t know if it can happen again, but every little bit helps, you know what I mean? I figure I’m due. I am due. And I can always have hope. I live on hope. Don’t you?”

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For people with hope in the lottery, Casa de Liquor & Deli, down the street from three churches and the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, is known as a lucky store. Only two other retailers in the state have sold more winning Super Lotto tickets--five each, to be exact. But while those stores also rank among the top in the state in total lottery ticket sales. Casa de Liquor & Deli isn’t even among the top 100, meaning the chances of winning there have been relatively high.

Those kind of percentages, spread by newspapers, radio, television and the Internet, drew dreamers from as far away as Chino to buy their tickets at the store. And who’s to say they didn’t have their reasons?

When it comes to winning tickets over the years, the store “just seems to have the touch,” said California State Lottery spokeswoman Cathy Doyle Johnston.

Hope is what lottery officials bank on, especially on days when the jackpot grows large enough to draw people who don’t regularly play.

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With a $102-million jackpot, a single winner could receive 26 graduated annual payments, starting at about $2.5 million and ending at about $5 million.

Or the winner could choose a one-time payment in the amount the lottery would have to invest today to pay the advertised amount over 26 years. The lump sum is about half the advertised jackpot--or $51 million.

The largest single California jackpot was $118.8 million on April 17, 1991, when 54 people shared the prize. In 1994, Augustine Chiarenza of Lompoc won $51.6 million to become the highest individual jackpot winner.

At the liquor store with little time to do business in liquor Wednesday, you could almost feel the belief and the expectation.

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“I have real hope, I think my chance is as good as anybody else’s,” said Debbie Bower, a Huntington Beach mother of four clutching an index card with her numbers on it--made up of her children’s birthdays, her wedding anniversary and a “really special number I’m keeping to myself, OK?

“I told my girlfriend as we were coming over here, ‘We have to see ourselves winning, see ourselves winning in our mind’s eye, and it’ll happen.’ Why not? Why couldn’t it happen to me?”

Among all the people in the liquor store playing the numbers, store owner Joseph Dibsy was the one that stood to make at least something. If any of the thousands of tickets he sold won more than $1,000, Dibsy stood to gain a percentage. Not to mention bonuses he gets just for selling a lot of tickets.

The whole thing, Dibsy said, nets his store about $25,000 a year.

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Which explained his excitement at midday, when the queue stretched out the door.

“Pastrami on rye? Who has the pastrami dip?” Dibsy shouted, as the little store seemed to get smaller and smaller and the number of people inking lottery tickets with their pens and talking about what they would do with their winnings grew larger and larger.

You can live on hope, Dibsy, told one customer. But in the meantime, “Are you hungry? Have some hummus.”

“It’s not like this every day, really. But today, well, it’s something special,” Dibsy said. “Everyone thinks they can win. Everyone thinks today is their day.”

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