Assets: Wikimedia commons | Graphic design by Noel Ransome

Newfoundland Has Found a New Religion in ‘Chase the Ace’

Newfoundlanders have always lived at the mercy of a fickle and cruel sea, and it bred a defiant longing for long odds.

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Aug 11 2017, 7:39pm

Assets: Wikimedia commons | Graphic design by Noel Ransome

Anyone driving across St. John's southern farmlands into the Goulds on a Wednesday afternoon this summer might be forgiven for thinking they have stumbled across a carnival, or an old-fashioned religious revival, or the final spectacular collapse of industrial civilization. Cars line the main road for miles, and the streets are choked with throngs of people on their way past police barricades to St. Kevin's Roman Catholic church. The church itself is a modest little building, outsized by a junior high school and the parish hall standing alongside it. Today, all the buildings are dwarfed by a crowd of thousands spilling across the lawn and the parking lot, milling around a lineup that stretches from the hall doors down to the sidewalk on Main Road.

This is a revival of a different sort; these people have come to St. Kevin's seeking a new salvation. They are here to Chase the Ace.

Chase the Ace is a phenomenon in Newfoundland and Labrador right now. In 2014, just two lottery licenses for the game were issued; for 2017 alone, at least 283 have been granted to churches and community groups across the province.

As far as lotteries go, the game is straightforward enough. You buy your tickets and if they call your number, you win a chance to draw one card from a standard 52 card deck. If you draw the Ace of Spades, you win the jackpot; if not, you get a fraction of the money raised that day as a consolation prize, and everything carries over to the next draw until the Ace is pulled. At St. Kevin's, the consolation prize is 20 percent of the day's ticket sales, while 30 percent goes into the jackpot, and 50 percent goes to the parish.

Photo by Drew Brown.

Sometimes, someone pulls the Ace of Spades straightaway, and the whole thing is a bust. But sometimes the Ace proves so elusive, and the game goes on so long, and the jackpot gets so big, that things absolutely blow up. St. Kevin's seems to have found the sweet spot. Its location in the St. John's suburbs puts it within easy driving distance of an easy third of the province's population, and going more than 40 weeks without pulling the Ace means big crowds, big sales, and a big jackpot. As of Wednesday, August 8, there were 11 cards left on the table and nearly $1.5 million in the pot.

(There's also a separate 50/50 draw given away every week, providing an extra incentive to draw a giant crowd.)

Every week the Ace runs free, the crowds get bigger and the stakes get higher. Things are quickly approaching a crescendo. In July, a minor scandal erupted when people discovered they'd accidentally been sold duplicate tickets, and the draw had to be postponed so auditors from Service NL could come in and investigate. (There may be no better metaphor for the state of 21st century Newfoundland than an amateur gambling outfit in the Goulds getting more government oversight than the Muskrat Falls project.) This past Wednesday, one irate ticket holder was asked to leave by police after he flew off the handle at a Service NL auditor over concerns the draw was 'illegitimate' because they accidentally gave him the wrong ticket stub.

(Small-time gambling is very serious business in Newfoundland and Labrador. Just ask the residents of Bell Island, where a game of radio bingo nearly tore the town apart.)

The day I went to St. Kevin's, people had been lined up in the pouring rain to buy tickets for hours before sales started at 9 AM, and the crowd slowly swelled all day. People brought chairs and coolers to post up along the chain-link fence to wait for the 8:20 PM draw, while others parked their RVs in the lot to run down the clock in comfort. Portable toilets were set up on the church lawn while food trucks—still something of a novelty in this province—set up shop along the street. There was a constant standing lineup at the Mary Brown's drive-through window, and it was at least a 90-minute wait to grab a single seat at the Jungle Jim's restaurant two blocks away from the church. At Brewskie's, the tiny town pub just beyond the police barricades, the place was so blocked that there was a waiting list to use the VLTs—just in case you wanted to gamble while you waited for the lottery.

Photo by Drew Brown

Despite the sea of people, most veteran Ace Chasers on the grounds told me the crowd was down from the last draw. But sales were up as fewer people were dropping more money on tickets, either crowdsourced from office pools around the city or drawn up by solo buyers in an act of desperate confidence.

From the outside looking in, it's difficult to explain why this has become such a phenomenon. Obviously, at its core is the lottery, and the thrill and hope and agony of gambling. There does seem to be a real deep-seated affinity for gambling in Newfoundland culture, about which I can only speculate. Maybe it's that Newfoundlanders have always lived at the mercy of a fickle and cruel sea, where feast or famine could turn at any moment with the wind, and it bred into us a defiant longing for long odds. The logic of boom and bust underpins almost everything in Newfoundland history and games of chance are a natural outlet.

Or maybe it's just that gambling is fun, and trips all the right pleasure centres of the brain.

But spending a Wednesday in the Goulds this summer feels like something more than this. Chase the Ace has created a real, if fleeting and tenuous and specious, sense of community. The grounds of St. Kevin's were filled with people of all ages, out mingling together and reveling in the flesh-and-blood social bonds in a world where that kind of public space is otherwise disintegrating. It feels more like a rural music festival than a church basement fundraiser. Why not chase that receding feeling of community for a few hours every week for five bucks a pop?

Photo by Drew Brown.

This is the sort of community spirit that the churches used to specialize in, and it's ironic to see it born again here in an amateur lottery. The same hardscrabble outport culture that cultivated our love of chance also incubated an abiding need for grace. Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial motto is an admonishment from Jesus Christ to the same effect. "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God," the provincial state tells us, and tomorrow will take care of itself; comforting words for Newfoundland's many dark nights of the soul.

But twenty years on from the end of denominational schooling, and the social efficacy of religion has flatlined as much in this province as anywhere else in the post-industrial world. Is it really so surprising to see the promise of salvation for a people swamped in debt reappear, demystified, in a million dollar jackpot? What is a lottery but the commodification of hope leased out disproportionately to the poor? The Lord may or may not hear our prayers for absolution but someone has to draw that Ace, and maybe it could be me.

While there's no doubt that the churches in this province have tapped a gold mine with Chase the Ace fundraisers, there's no guarantee that the pact they've struck with Mammon here isn't a Faustian bargain. The parish will rake in a lot of money for renovations and its community projects, including a food bank that gave out more than $300,000 worth of hampers last year. But it's an open question whether funding through a lottery system that disproportionately draws most of its profits from the poor—presumably, some of those same people served through the food bank - is spiritually appropriate. Seems to me that there is little sense in upgrading from a pine box to a gold sarcophagus if all you're housing is a corpse.

Still—you can't deny that community spirit is real, even if the ritual of summoning it is a work of blackest magic. Standing in the crowd as the church speakers reeled through the greatest staples of Newfoundland traditional music, soaking in the collective exhilaration when they start reading out the tickets, flitting through that liminal space between knowing full well that they are absolutely not going to call your number but still feeling in that moment that it really could be me, I really could be free—yes. It's easy to understand why people keep coming out to this.

After the draw, the "Fall of Saigon" portion of the Chase the Ace began. | Photo by Drew Brown.

Most of us didn't win, of course. George Chaulk was called upon to draw the Ace on behalf of his work pool at Hebron. He drew the nine of spades instead, walking away with a consolation prize of $184,014 and leaving the Ace to ferment for another week. The snowball in the Goulds will roll another week and the jackpot will be bigger again. There will be another barricade, another carnival, and another spiritual communion outside the church parish next Wednesday.

Where that magic goes when all this ends, though, is anybody's guess.

Follow Drew brown on Twitter.

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