How a Cape Breton game of Chase the Ace turned a charity fundraiser into a million-dollar phenomenon

Willena MacQuarrie called her grandchildren over to the front window of her home in Inverness, , and told them to look outside at all the people. People. Some were alone, though most were in groups, wandering up and down Central Avenue on the Friday night of Labour Day weekend, waiting.

They had come from all corners of Cape Breton and from as far away as Alberta, Halifax and New Brunswick. Most arrived by car. But a few came by boat, crossing the Northumberland Strait from PEI, tying up in Inverness harbour.

“People are coming into town Friday nights and sleeping in their cars — just so they can be up early to line up for tickets,” MacQuarrie says. “This whole thing has taken on a life of its own. It is crazy.”

It is not your good old bingo game, as it might have been, back in the day, but a new lottery/fundraiser/cultural craze called Chase the Ace. A game of chance that has been transforming pretty Inverness, population 1500, into the biggest East Coast kitchen party — ever — every Saturday since summer began, as fortune seekers pursue a jackpot that started at $2000 and is expected to balloon to a million by the time of this weekend’s draw.

Betty Anne CameronBetty Anne CameronPeople arriving for a chance to Chase the Ace. The expected September 15, 2-15 jackpot is $1-Million

Willena MacQuarrie has been chasing the ace since last October, a simpler time, she admits, when the game’s organizing charities — the local Royal Canadian Legion branch and a centre for adults with intellectual disabilities — set out with the modest goal of raising about $20,000 each.

How does the game work? You buy a ticket. Get your ticket picked from a bin and you get a 20% cut of the weekly ticket sales, plus a chance to pick a card. Pick the ace of spades and you win the jackpot. Don’t pick the ace, and 30% of ticket sales are added to the jackpot while the remaining 50% gets divided among the benefiting charities. Tickets are sold in bundles of 12 for $20. They come in four colours: yellow, green, orange and hot pink.

MacQuarrie’s ticket was drawn in week three. She pocketed $35, but didn’t draw the ace. (She spent her winnings on candy for the grandkids). Her card was then discarded and the game played on, and the jackpot got bigger, and bigger, and what began as a local fundraiser became a cultural phenomenon. Last week’s winner didn’t draw the ace either, although they did pocket $136,000. Ten months worth of Saturdays later, and the ace is still out there — with only seven cards left in the deck.

“We never expected it to get to this,” says Legion vice-president Cameron MacQuarrie, Willena’s brother-in-law.

What he means is: he never imagined Inverness might achieve maximum ace.

In the early days, the Saturday draw was held at the Legion hall on Central Avenue. That is, until the crowds outgrew the venue, prompting organizers to offload the overflow of people to the local arena. But then the arena overflowed, and so the grandstand at the racetrack was opened to the public. For this Saturday’s event a school gymnasium has been added to the list of gathering spots, as organizers anticipate the town’s population will swell to 10,000.

“Last week we sold 400,000 tickets,” says Cameron MacQuarrie. “We are looking at doubling that number this week. We are bracing ourselves.”

Legion members have had meetings with the RCMP, paramedics, the Ministry of Transportation and the Nova Scotia Alcohol and Gaming department, addressing issues ranging from public safety to where to park the influx of cars. Seven hundred vehicles parked on the infield of the racetrack last Saturday for five bucks a pop, a tidy sum that speaks to a Chase the Ace ripple effect enriching local businesses. That includes one wee entrepreneur, whose lemonade stand is said to have netted her $250 in sales over a three-hour span.

Betty Anne CameronBetty Anne CameronPeople arriving for a chance to Chase the Ace.

Kelly Neil manages the Downstreet Coffee Company, just down the street from the Legion. She characterizes the Saturday scene as a carnival, a down-home “Woodstock,” infused by a kitchen party vibe. Cape Breton cousins, twice and thrice removed, and some fresh back from Alberta’s oil patch, can be found catching up on the town’s clogged main street. Buskers busk. Barbecues smoke. Bands play at the arena. Even a pair of Jehovah Witnesses joined the fun on a recent Saturday, preaching a message of salvation.

“Let’s see this thing through to the end and bring as much money into the community as we can,” Neil says.

But every story has two sides. And, on one side, Legion volunteers have been working like maniacs to manage Chase the Ace, missing out on a glorious Cape Breton summer.

“There is some fatigue,” Cameron MacQuarrie admits.

But there is money to be won, a pile of loot that grew too big for the local bank branch to comfortably handle, and has since been transported off-site by a security firm for safe-keeping.

So what happens when somebody actually does win? When that ace gets drawn and the carnival leaves town and Saturdays in Inverness go back to being Saturdays in Inverness?

What then?

“What then?” Willena MacQuarrie says, with a gentle laugh. “I’ll be at home on Saturdays babysitting the grandkids. Life will be back to being the same old thing.”

David Jala/Cape Breton PostDavid Jala/Cape Breton PostInverness resident Donna MacEachern was the lucky winner of the Chase the Ace draw that was worth more than $30,000 on Saturday.

About Joe O'Connor