The Numbers Game or Policy Racket is a lottery game where the bettor attempts to pick three or four numbers from zero to nine that will be randomly drawn. Before the advent of state-operated lotteries, the gambler would place his or her bet with a bookie at a candy shop or a tavern. Today, state lotteries offer this game as the Daily Numbers Game. A runner carries the money and betting slips between the betting parlors and the headquarters.
Different policy banks would offer different payout ratios, though a payoff of 600 to 1 was typical. One of the game’s attractions to low income and working class bettors was the ability to bet small amounts of money. Usually a gambler could bet as little as ten cents with the possibility of winning sixty dollars. Also bookies, unlike state lotteries, could extend credit to the bettor.
In the northeastern United States this game was known as the “Nigger Pool”. This reflected the belief that the game originated in black neighborhoods.
One of the problems of the early game was to find a way to draw a random number that the bookie could not be accused of choosing unfairly. One method was to take the last three numbers in the published daily balance of the United States Treasury. When the Treasury began rounding off the balance many bookies began to use the “mutuel” number. This number 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 was:
then the daily number was 127.
This variant of the numbers game, where the number depends on an event beyond the bookie’s control, is sometimes called a policy game.
In 1875, a report of a select committee of the New York State Assembly stated that “the lowest, meanest, worst form, however, which gambling takes in the city of New York, is what is known as policy playing.”
Today, state lotteries use mechanical devices to draw the number. They also pay under a parimutuel betting system.
Since most bookies in the United States operate outside of the law, there is no way to gauge what effect the legalization of state-run gambling has had on the Numbers Game. Some gamblers still prefer to play with a bookie for a number of reasons. Among them are a guaranteed payoff, betting on credit, and calling in one’s bet on the telephone.
In illegal numbers games, typically certain more popular numbers, known as cut numbers, have reduced payoffs. A player’s chance of winning on one number is only one in 999; his winnings may pay off at 800 to 1.
^ Holice and Debbie, Our Police Protectors: History of New York Police Chapter 13, Part 1. Accessed on 4/2/2005
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