The pot at a Queen of Hearts raffle at McNally's benefitting St. Cajetan School keeps soaring. Credit: Howard Ludwig/ Block Club Chicago

MORGAN PARK — In the southwest corner of Chicago, the search is on for the Queen of Hearts — and it’s got the locals in a frenzy and an often-quiet neighborhood tavern jam packed.

McNally’s on Western Avenue in Morgan Park is running a 50/50 raffle that gives about half the proceeds to a local Catholic school and the other half to one lucky ticket holder. But no one’s won it for 38 straight weeks, causing the pot to keep rolling over and over and over.

It’s rolled over so many times, the projected pot is now at a whopping $900,000. The next drawing is set for 9 p.m. Thursday at the bar, 11136 S. Western Ave.

The chance for a life-changing win has sent locals to McNally’s around the clock to score the raffle tickets, with some people lining up in the morning. Others come toting custom rubber stamps so they don’t have to keep writing their names on the scores of tickets they buy.

In the last month as the pot swelled, the bar has routinely filled before noon with folks buying up tickets. By 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, the bar was standing room only, with eager patrons collecting ticket orders by phone from relatives and friends that are stuck at work.

“Your hand gets sore filling all of these out,” one woman lamented at the bar. 

And while they do it, they’re drinking beer. Lots of it.

McNally’s, known best for their snarky, Cubs-loathing marquee,  used to be a low-key neighborhood tavern. The family-owned bar was even up for sale in recent years.

Not anymore.

The marquee at McNally’s Tuesday. Credit: Howard Ludwing, Block Club Chicago

Queen of Hearts raffles have grown increasingly popular in this far corner of the city – but none more so than at McNally’s.

The winner will split the money with nearby St. Cajetan Elementary School, a Catholic grade school. School officials declined to comment about the raffle and the attempts to reach the tavern owner were unsuccessful.

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) also did not return calls about the soaring raffle, but he did sponsor an ordinance to change the top raffle prize allowed under city ordinance this year. The ordinance, which bumped the top prize allowed from $200,000 to $1 million, was approved in March.

The maximum cash prize allowed is $500,000, the amended city rules stipulate, and the McNally’s pot payout to the winner (less the half given to the school) would come in just under that limit at approximately $450,000. 

It was that large pot at McNally’s that drew Rita Racine of Morgan Park into the bar on Tuesday afternoon.

Racine, 73, has been buying raffle tickets for the past month. The St. Cajetan graduate and 7 a.m. Mass regular also fills out raffle tickets for several family members.

“It’s a win, win. It’s good for the bar. It’s good for the school. It’s good for the church. And it’s good for the neighborhood,” Racine said. “It’s like our own little lotto.”

The McNally’s marquee earlier this month. The pot “rolled over” that week.  Credit: Howard Ludwig, Block Club Chicago

The raffle with the potential for a lucrative pot is named for the elusive playing card. 

St. Cajetan’s Queen of Hearts raffle began 38 weeks ago with hopefuls buying six raffle tickets for $5. Those buying tickets write their name, phone number and a card number on each raffle ticket and then take a guess as to where the Queen of Hearts is hidden in the deck.

When the game begins, the cards are placed face down on a poster board and numbered 1-54 (the jokers are left in the deck for St. Cajetan’s raffle). The board is then laminated and thus sealed.

A raffle ticket is chosen each week from the pile at random. A number written on the ticket by the buyer decides which card will be cut out of the laminated poster. If that card is the Queen of Hearts, the winner shares the proceeds evenly with the Catholic school.

If that card is anything other than the Queen of Hearts, the pot “rolls over” into the next week. All of the previous raffle tickets are thrown out. South Siders who want a new chance to win the even bigger pot the next week must buy a new crop of raffle tickets.

And as the pot rolls, both the payout and interest in the “progressive” raffle increases.

McNally’s Facebook page announces if the pot has “rolled over” each week.  Credit: McNally's/Facebook

There are now 17 cards that remain unturned on the board at McNally’s. And as odds of unveiling the queen have improved, folks feeling lucky from well outside of the neighborhood have trekked to the Western Avenue bar. 

The crowd is electric on the night of the drawing each week. Customers stand shoulder to shoulder as an enormous metal tumbler filled with tickets is spun over and over again as a woman dressed as the Queen of Hearts presides. A teacher or parent from St. Cajetan School typically pulls a raffle ticket from the large drum, and the crowd quiets as the name is read over a loud speaker along with the number of the card that has been selected.

The Queen of Hearts raffle drawing at McNally’s June 14. The pot “rolled over” that week. Credit: Howard Ludwig, Block Club Chicago

The bar owner then uses a box cutter to open the sealed envelope on the poster containing the card. News of a rollover is met with a loud cheer as those who contributed to the pot now have another chance to win back their money and then some the next week.

McNally’s success has also drawn the attention of other Catholic schools who have started their own Queen of Hearts raffles, including St. Christina School in Mount Greenwood, Queen of Martyrs School in Evergreen Park and St. Laurence High School in south suburban Burbank.

It’s also turned McNally’s into a hot spot for people who haven’t hung out there in decades. Die-hard Cubs fan Kathy S. found out about Queen of Hearts early on, and now stops in every week from suburban Crestwood. 

“I would never hang out there otherwise,” she said. “It’s a White Sox bar.”

She said she’s watched the place transform as the pot grew each week: more bartenders were hired, service is speedy and friendly and “they make great Bloody Marys,” she added.

It’s no wonder other neighborhood bars want to get in on the action.

Hinky Dinks Pub in Mount Greenwood hosts the Queen of Hearts raffle for St. Laurence at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays, according to Antoinette Koestner, whose son, P.J. Husbands, attends the school and whose sister, Amanda Hinks, works at the bar.

The Queen of Hearts raffle at Hinky Dinks, going on for 15 weeks, was at $11,800 as of Tuesday afternoon. The greater the pot, the greater the crowd, Koestner said. 

“We have had very, very good turnout from the football team parents because the money is going towards the athletic department. The money is funding improvements to the weight room and a renovation of the practice field,” Koestner said Tuesday.

The next Queen of Hearts raffle at McNally’s is at 9 p.m. Thursday.  Credit: Howard Ludwig, Block Club Chicago

Howard contributes stories from the Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood neighborhoods.nnHoward contributes stories from the Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood neighborhoods. Twitter @howardaludwig