VERMILLION, S.D. — When a fundraiser in the small South Dakota town of Faulkton gave away a $1 million prize this spring, it may've turned heads in bigger cities.
But for folks who've been following for months, maybe years a card game somewhere between "Go Fish" and a television game show that's been speeding through the pubs and taverns in small towns, especially on the state's eastern side, there could've been only one culprit.
"Chase the Ace!" said Suzanne Braun, chamber of commerce director in Gregory, S.D., where — as of Wednesday, June 23 — their card game had grown to a modest pot of just over $6,000. "It's crazy how they've just taken off."
Called by various names — Chase the Queen in Hudson, Chase the Joker in Chancellor — the recipe is otherwise the same: A game-of-chance with mysterious Canadian roots involving some lucky entrant, chosen by a raffle ticket, who then selects the sought-after card from among cards sheathed in dark slips for half the pot.
The other half goes to charity.
The concoction of COVID-19 boredom and need for development dollars seems to be working on South Dakotans.
"I don't know where it comes from," said Lonnie Schlotte, the lucky card-puller in Faulkton. "But I'm a popular guy now."
When Schlotte chose card No. 6 ("for Mark Martin," he said) back in April, his delayed internet feed meant the texts and social media messages (even probably some of the 80 new Facebook friends) arrived before he'd found out he'd pulled the ace, winning him roughly half of a $1.8 million pot.
More than $340,000 went to the IRS. "Federal government," Schlotte sighed. The rest he invested, put into his house, or his new Kia.
"I'm keeping my day job."
But Schlotte is far from the only winner of eye-popping dollars in bars where maybe a fortuitous shake of dice may get you free chicken wings.
In 2019, a Montrose man picked up over $300,000 at a card game raising money for fighting cancer at a town tap in Hudson, S.D. Earlier this year, a Parker man picked up nearly $35,000 that organizers think he dropped on a new boat.
And just last week, another Parker resident won $8,000 at a game in Chancellor, a town of 264 about 30 minutes southwest of Sioux Falls.
"Our ticket sales average $500 to $700 a week," said Jeb Ford, with the Chancellor Volunteer Fire Department, who organized the game. "We want to buy a new grass rig."
In cash-strapped, small-town South Dakota, the funds to build a new swimming pool, courthouse annex, or even a billboard — Gregory's cause — can bump into normal fiscal conservatism. While the state government was flush with cash this year thanks to CARES Act stimulus from Washington, D.C., local budgets have remained relatively tight.
Which means, locals get creative.
In Parker, retired Turner County Sheriff Bryon Nogelmeier runs a nonprofit that raises money for a pheasant-hunting program for kids. He tried to throw a country music concert, bringing in Jimmy Fortune and Hank Williams' daughter, Jett, but that fell short in enthusiasm. Then he tried Chase the Ace at a local bar.
"We had to move from the bar to the community center," said Nogelmeier. "Usually it's begging for money from these corporate sponsors. But not anymore."
The game, like most things over the last year, hasn't been without controversy. Nogelmeier admitted they had to briefly sideline the game late last summer when he and some workers got COVID-19. And in December, city council members in Lake Preston grew frustrated when their volunteer fire department announced plans to resume a Chase the Ace game in January while the pandemic raged.
"We were very fortunate no one got sick," councilwoman Donna Bumann said Wednesday, June 23.
The firefighters bought a new rescue engine.
Aside from those pandemic-related public health encounters, some say the game might not exactly meet the letter of the law, either.
"Is it legal?" asked Tim Bormann, chief of staff to the South Dakota attorney general, who spoke to Forum News Service on Wednesday. "To be honest, it's gray."
Under South Dakota law, raffles are legal, so long as written notice is provided to the secretary of state. Bingo and lotteries are also OK for charitable purposes. But the prizes can't eclipse $2,000.
So, again, legal?
"I wouldn't be surprised to see someone try to bring legislation (around Chase the Ace) at some point in the future," said Bormann, a former state's attorney for Faulk County. Nevertheless, Bormann noted, gambling "is something that has gone on since territorial times."
Back in Faulkton, the area foundation that organized the $1.8 million game — which took off with online purchases — has given up. They've got money for years. Plus, the game grew stressful. They even called in an attorney.
But as long as no one's "skimming off the top," game organizer Troy Hadrick doesn't see any legal problem with the fundraising mechanism.
"It's just a different kind of raffle," Hadrick said. "I'd hate to see that opportunity go away."
So for now, the ace, or queen, or joker continues to be chased each week, but just not in Faulkton. Schlotte has found a new game.
"I'm still playing 'em," he said, noting with the pots across the state are mostly in the $5,000 to $10,000 range right now. "But it'll grow. They always do."
How to play
Chase the Ace opens like a raffle. People buy raffle tickets, boosting the pot. Then, on the appointed night, usually in a bar, sometimes with a Facebook livestream going, a number is drawn.
If the winner is present or watching online, he or she automatically collects 10% of that week’s sale. Then, the chase kicks in.
The winner, next, is asked to pick a card — any card — from a deck. Sometimes the cards are concealed in black envelopes. Sometimes they’re laid out on a table. In Mount Vernon, S.D., they're hoisted to a makeshift frame.
Usually, most weeks, they choose an 8 of spades or a 4 of hearts. But once in a while, they choose the ace, or the queen. And half the pot is theirs.