It was Thursday, the opening day of the California lottery, when salesman Roman Lash bought his first lottery ticket and invited his girlfriend to play it.
In the shadowy Chinese restaurant, she rubbed a thin latex coating off six squares, uncovering three identical numbers. Lash had just won $1,000.
But later, as they showed his winning ticket to friends, their excitement turned to dismay. In her eagerness to uncover the numbers, his girlfriend apparently had rubbed off a thin silver strip at the bottom of the ticket that warned: "VOID IF REMOVED."
On Monday as Lash stood in line with other winners at the Lottery Commission's Anaheim headquarters to put in a claim for his winnings, he was more than a little worried about his ticket.
"I don't believe this should invalidate it," he said, displaying a ticket with a line of numbers (a security code) where the silver panel should have been.
"The restaurant was dark. My girlfriend didn't put on her glasses. And it was our first--our very first--lottery ticket!"
Lash was not the only winner telling a hard luck story about lottery rules.
15% Guilty of Rub-Outs
Since the lottery began last week, about 15% of the "instant winners" of $2 to $5,000 mistakenly have scratched the VOID-IF-REMOVED panel off their tickets, Anaheim Regional Director James Braxton said.
"The anxiety level is really high now. They're going 'Oh my God, am I really going to get my money?' " he said.
For all the concern, the probable answer is yes, lottery officials said.
"This is John Q. Public. We're not going to penalize these people. But if somebody is counterfeiting, we're going to be picking it up," said Orange County District Director Ulysses Carter.
Lottery officials expect to give these tickets extra scrutiny to rule out any attempt to falsify a win. But in the end, unless the identification number beneath the panel is altered or damaged, nearly all of these tickets probably will be honored, said Rick Blim, lottery deputy security chief.
Still, the scrutiny could delay payoffs from several days to several weeks, some lottery officials said.
And on Monday, as winners stood in a long line to file their claims, Orange County lottery officials offered little comfort to those who had rubbed their tickets the wrong way.
"OK. You should not have removed this (panel)," lottery sales representative Mike Vaday said to a man presenting a $100 ticket. "I can't promise you anything right now."
If those with incorrectly rubbed tickets represented a minority of winners, they were a vocal one.
"I didn't do it. The dealer did it," said Robert James, 46, a punch press operator from Santa Ana, displaying a ticket with numbers where the small, printed warning should have been.
"He (the gas station dealer where he bought his ticket) was showing me how to play the game on the first day," James said. "The guy was doing this (rubbing off the panel) to everyone's ticket."
Thomas Habbershaw, 65, a machinist from Garden Grove, said he had rubbed his $500 winning ticket properly. But he was the first winner Thursday at a neighborhood bar and lots of people had wanted to inspect it, so "I passed the thing around and when it come back, it (the panel) was scratched off," Habbershaw said.
Friend Threw His Away
Habbershaw said he was upset, but had decided to submit a winner claim anyway. If it is rejected, he said, "I'll just tack it (the ticket) up on the bedroom wall and cry."
Carl Hooven, a pipe fitter from Ontario and a $100 winner, said he had followed the rules. But a friend had discarded his $500 winning ticket after he had rubbed the bottom panel off by mistake, Hooven said, and he believed a lot of other people had done the same thing.
Both those with correctly rubbed tickets and those with a ticket panel missing said they wished the state would change the design of the tickets so it would be harder to make that mistake.
However, lottery officials said there were no plans to change the design. The number below the panel was an "extremely important" security identification number, Deputy Security Chief Blim said. Other lotteries use the same design, and lottery officials expect California residents to become used to it just as residents of other states have.
Still, Blim said, he understood the frustration of those who rubbed off too much. Several months ago in Oregon, "my wife did the same thing," Blim said. They had won $2 with their first lottery ticket, then realized she had rubbed off the bottom panel.
"We thought 'Oh my God, we'll never be able to win,' " Blim said. "But we got our $2 within about a week and a half."