Numbers game

Numbers game

Numbers game, also known as a numbers racket, policy racket or Italian lottery, is an illegal lottery played mostly in poor neighborhoods in the United States, wherein a bettor attempts to pick three digits to match those that will be randomly drawn the following day. The gambler places his or her bet with a bookie at a tavern, or other semi-private place that acts as a betting parlor. A runner carries the money and betting slips between the betting parlors and the headquarters, called a numbers bank or policy bank. The name "policy" is from a similarity to cheap insurance, both seen as a gamble on the future.[1]



The game dates back at least to the beginning of the Italian lottery, in 1530. "Policy shops", where bettors choose numbers, were in the United States prior to 1860. In 1875, a report of a select committee of the New York State Assembly stated that "the lowest, meanest, worst form ... [that] gambling takes in the city of New York, is what is known as policy playing." The game was also popular in Italian neighborhoods known as the "Italian lottery", and it was known in Cuban communities as bolita ("little ball").[2]

By the early 20th century, the game was associated with poor communities, and could be played for as little as $0.01. One of the game's attractions to low income and working class bettors was the ability to bet small amounts of money. Also, unlike state lotteries, bookies could extend credit to the bettor. In addition, policy winners could avoid paying income tax. Different policy banks would offer different rates, though a payoff of 600 to 1 was typical. Since the odds of winning were 1,000:1, the expected profit for racketeers was enormous.[2]


Francis A. J. Ianni, in his book Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession in Organized Crime writes: "By 1925 there were thirty black policy banks in Harlem, several of them large enough to collect bets in an area of twenty city blocks and across three or four avenues." By 1931, there were several big time numbers operators, James Warner, Stephanie St. Clair, Casper Holstein, Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, Wilfred Brandon, Jose Miro, Joseph Ison, Masjoe Ison and Simeon Francis.[3] The game survived despite periodic police crackdowns.[4]

Italian lottery

The Italian lottery was operated, as a racket for the American Mafia, originally, in Italian-American neighborhoods such as Little Italy, Manhattan and East Harlem by mobsters of the Morello crime family. A young Joseph Bonanno, future boss of the Bonanno crime family, expanded the Italian lottery operation to all of Brooklyn and invested the profits in many legitimate businesses.[5] In the 1930s, Vito Genovese, crime boss of the Genovese crime family, gained control over the Italian Lottery, allowing him to have ample money to invest in nightclubs in Greenwich Village.[6]

Dutch Schultz is said to have rigged this system, thanks to an idea from Otto Berman, by betting heavily on certain races to change the Win, Place and Show numbers that determine the winning lottery number. This allegedly added ten percent to the Mob take.[7]

Legal lotteries

Today, many state lotteries offer similar "daily numbers" games, relying typically on mechanical devices to draw the number. The state's rake is typically 50% rather than the 20%-40% of the numbers game. The New York Lottery and Pennsylvania Lottery, even use the names "Numbers" and "Daily Number", respectively. Despite the existence of legal alternatives, some gamblers still prefer to play with a bookie for a number of reasons. Among them are the ability to bet on credit, better payoffs, the convenience of calling in one's bet on the telephone, the ability to play if under the legal age, and the avoidance of government taxes.


Winning number

One of the problems of the early game was to find a way to draw a random number. Initially, winning numbers were set by the daily outcome of a random drawing of numbered balls, or by spinning a "policy wheel", at the headquarters of the local numbers ring. The daily outcomes were publicized by being posted after the draw at the headquarters, and were often "fixed". The existence of rigged games, used to cheat players and drive competitors out of business, later led to the use of the last three numbers in the published daily balance of the United States Treasury. The use of a central independently chosen number allowed for gamblers from a larger area to engage in the same game and it made possible larger wins. When the Treasury began rounding off the balance many bookies began to use the "mutuel" number. This consisted of the last dollar digit of the daily total handle of the Win, Place and Show bets at a local race track, read from top to bottom. For example, if the daily handle (takings at the racetrack) was:

  • Win    $1004.25
  • Place   $583.56
  • Show     $27.61

then the daily number was 437. By 1936, "The Bug" had spread to cities such as Atlanta where the winning number was determined by the last digit of that day's New York bond sales.[8]

Odds and payout

A player's chance of winning on one number is one in 1000. In illegal numbers games, depending on time and place, winning on most numbers may pay off as high as 800 to 1 or as low as 600 to 1 (in Norristown, PA in the 1950s the payoff was 500 to 1)[citation needed]. Typically, certain more popular numbers, known as cut numbers, have reduced payoffs, typically as much as 20% less than other numbers. Numbers such as 777 were cut numbers to prevent the possibility of the bank being overwhelmed by a hit on those numbers. The difference between the dollar amount of the tickets bought and the amount paid out is the vigorish, which the bookie keeps to cover overhead and make a profit for himself. In the Norristown, PA area part-time sub-runners collected bets on both numbers and horses in their neighborhoods and workplaces (factories, retail stores, movie theaters, the local police station, the county courthouse, etc.). The sub-runners earned 5% for this service. The runner then earned 15% of the numbers bets he "picked up" on his route, which left 30% for the bookie. The bookie "laid off" excess bets to a better financed local banker so as to keep his daily risk manageable. The local banker in turn laid off to a higher level banker when his daily book became too unbalanced. The bookie also paid upward through the banker a daily tax on his volume. This tax went up the line to the organization (based in New Jersey in the case of Norristown, PA in the 1950s) which defined and guaranteed his territory, and which also organized payments to politicians to reduce "heat" on the business. A measure of the effectiveness of this "protection" is that in the 1950s a runner in Norristown made daily stops at both the local police station and at the Montgomery County courthouse to pick up numbers and horse bets. In one case when the PA State Police were planning to do a raid on the business the first act they did after alerting the local police was to station a trooper at the police department switchboard to discourage warning from going out.

Policy dealers

Policy reformers


In popular culture

The 1948 film noir Force of Evil revolves around the numbers racket, with the plot hinging upon the workings of policy banks. The film tells of a gangster who is trying to take over all the banks in New York City by rigging the mutual numbers to come up 776 on Independence Day. Since everybody plays those numbers for the Fourth of July, the banks will go bankrupt filling the policies.

In Spike Lee's film Malcolm X, Denzel Washington's main character acts as a numbers runner for a character named "West Indian Archie" in Harlem.

In the 1973 film The Sting, the main character (played by Robert Redford) spends most of the film evading assassins after he cons a numbers runner out of several thousand dollars worth of racket money belonging to a powerful mob boss (portrayed by Robert Shaw).

Mobster Dutch Schultz's attempts to take control of the New York numbers rackets have been portrayed in two separate films: 1991's Billy Bathgate, about a young boy (Loren Dean) to whom Schultz (Dustin Hoffman) takes a liking, and who witnesses the gangster's decline and fall, and 1997's Hoodlum, which purports to tell the story of the mob war between Schultz (Tim Roth) and black gangster Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) over control of the Harlem numbers racket. Both films were heavily fictionalized.

In an episode of Sanford and Son, Fred plans to bet on the "numbers" after he has a dream about having the winning number. His son Lamont is against his plan, but Fred bets $1 anyway and wins $600.

In the boardgame Illuminati: Crime Lords (Steve Jackson Games) you can own Numbers game enterprises for different districts of a city, along with other criminal rackets.

In the film The Godfather, Sonny and members of the Corleone family discuss the fact that black gangs have taken over their "policy banks" due to the turmoil caused by the gang wars between the Corleones and other New York Mafia families.

See also


  1. ^ Sifakis, Carl. The Mafia Encyclopedia. Facts on File, 2005, p.336
  2. ^ a b Holice and Debbie, Our Police Protectors: History of New York Police Chapter 13, Part 1. Accessed on 4/2/2005
  3. ^ Harlem Gangs: The Numbers Game from Crime Library
  4. ^ Hess, Margaret (February 25, 1934). "Game the Police Are Seeking to Curb Draws Victims From the City's Poor.". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-26. "The police offensive recently launched against the policy game has resulted in numerous arrests and the raiding of a "bank" in which three sacks of "slips" were discovered. Central depots in Harlem have also been closed and many collectors and bankers driven to cover." 
  5. ^ Los Angeles Times. May 12, 2002. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Sifakis, pp.38-9
  8. ^ Associated Press, February 12, 1936
  9. ^ a b ""Al" Adams a Suicide, Following Misfortunes; Broken By Ill-health and Money Losses, He Shoots Himself. Sage & Co. Sank $2,000,000. He Also Felt Deeply The Disgrace Of Prison Sentence. Great Fortune Made In Policy Swindle." (PDF). New York Times. October 2, 1906. Retrieved 2008-07-23. ""Al" Adams, known as the "Policy King," committed suicide yesterday morning by shooting himself. Members of his family and those in the apartment house who ... Standing before a mirror in his apartment on the fifteenth floor of the Ansonia apartment hotel, "Al" Adams, known as the "Policy King," committed suicide ..." 
  10. ^ "Paid $500 To Schmittberger.". New York Times. October 12, 1894. Retrieved 2008-07-26. "Forget Says This Tribute Went To The Police Captain. The Agent Of The French Line Tells The Lexow Committee Of The Money Transaction. Complete Exposure Of The Policy Business In This City. A List Of 600 Places Where The Gambling Was Conducted. Only One Precinct Free From The Evil." 

Further reading

  • New York Times; Wednesday May 19, 1883; Policy-dealers Punished.
  • Lawrence J. Kaplan and James M. Maher; The Economics of the Numbers Game in American Journal of Economics and Sociology;
  • Nathan Thompson; Kings: The True Story of Chicago's Policy Kings and Numbers Racketeers An Informal History; The Bronzeville Press ISBN 0972487506 (2003)
  • Shane White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson and Graham White, Playing the Numbers : Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-674-05107-2.
  • Sucker's Progress: An Informal History of Gambling in America, Herbert Asbury

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