# Does the numbers racket still exist?

Does the “numbers” game/racket still exist anywhere in the US, or has it been wiped out by the legal lotteries?

I was just reading John Scarne’s take on it, but it’s 40 years old and I don’t see how “da numbahs” could survive against dollar lotto tickets.

I doubt it, for exactly the reason you gave. Though I suspect the criminals actually gave a better payout.

When I was a teen, I variously sold t-shirts, sno-cones and concert programs for a 500 lb carnie. Nowdays, all that is controlled by corporate types paying minimum wage. In contrast, the carnie gave me 10% of everything I sold, so I could actually make a few hundred dollars on a concert.

There are advantages to gambling with an entity that does not report to the IRS. I’ve heard.

As good a thread as any to fight my ignorance, what exactly is the numbers racket?

It’s usually based upon an unpredictable number, like the number of shares traded on the stock exchange or the handle at a local racetrack. Generally, they take the last three digits. You pick three numbers and if those match, you win. This if you pick 479, and the handle at the track was \$2,568,479, you win.

Numbers usually paid about 400 to 1 for a winner; you bet a buck and get \$400. With the odds of 1000 to one, it makes a lot of money for the numbers dealer. People would put in a dollar (or less) and hope it would come in.

Legal numbers put an end to that.

Scarne says the usual payoff was 600:1, which is still a pretty good take for the bookies. Some numbers were “cut” to 400:1 or even refused because so many people picked them; a hit on that number would empty the tills of the bookmakers. Cut numbers were typically 711 (craps players loved this one), all triplets 000-999 and all hundreds 100-900. “But that was forty years ago, when there use to be a show…” I’ll take the lack of confirmation as pretty good proof that the legal games pushed the racket out of the picture.

I’m endlessly amused by the fact that the criminals generally took a lower rake than the government.

Unless you take out a loan and have to pay 10-20% interest, per week.

There are a number of other reasons why illegal numbers games might continue to exist. Per Wiki:

Thanks for the info. I really had no idea.

Virtually every form of gambling, legal or illegal, gives better payouts than the legal lotteries.

As I heard it, the original number was the DJIA - it used to be reported to 3 digits; its used in the racket caused papers to round to 2 digits.

There’s a “numbers game” (underground lottery) in Thailand. A typical bet (though other bets are available) is a 3-digit number, e.g. 447. The payoff is 600-1 (wholesale) or 500-1 (retail). For example, a runner might charge 12 baht for a number and give 10 baht to the operator. With 6000 baht payoff, the player is getting the “retail” rate, but would get the “wholesale” price if the runner were bypassed.

I had an in-law who was an operator; he had to lay off bets when there were too many on a single number. Although a round is 15 days, many people would wait till the last hour to bet by phone. My in-law lazed around for 14 days, but twice a month had a hectic hour when he received bets. He’d close his book twenty minutes before deadline, look for numbers he needed to lay off, send them by motorcycle to a wholesaler who took bets uninspected.

My in-law got only the wholesale price (600-1) on bets he laid off, so made no profit on those. I toyed with involvement but it would probably have been a huge mistake. The police generally know who all the operators are but look the other way if bribed. Catching a foreigner, however, would be a major feather in their cap! BTW, if you have some actuarial or other harmless pursuit involving lists of numbers, be careful in Thailand! Lists of numbers are taken as prima facie proof of involvement in the numbers racket.

The winning numbers for the Thai numbers racket are numbers that show up in the government lottery, though the mapping to payoffs is completely different. For a while, the government competed with the underground, offering tickets with the same payoff schedule as underground. They dropped it due to lack of customers, however, Thais preferring the underground for flexibility, credit, and, perhaps, social motives.

I remember being able to play the number in Boston in mid to late nineties. Well past the advent of the legal number. It was referred to as the street or n_word number. Was based on a racetrack handle, IIRC.

That’s the old-school form. If I may again reference Mr. Scarne, he said that in most places the rackets known as the “n*****-numbers” in the 1930s and 40s were taken over by the mob by the middle of the war and became known as just the numbers. Racetrack handles were a common source.

Numbers runner arrested in New York City. Two months ago. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/23/nyregion/numbers-runner-a-rarity-is-arrested-in-harlem.html
That said apparently the business has been dying for a while and “Only old people play.”

1998: “Ex-Gambling Boss Accused Of Reviving Numbers Ring”

What is the “handle” at a race track?

The amount of money wagered at the track on a certain day.

The previous day’s race results would be printed in the newspaper, and below all the results, there would be a notation like “Handle: \$462,963.” This means that in total, bettors wagered \$462,963 at the given track on the previous day. And if a numbers game is operating in the area, and using the track handle to determine winners, then any holders of number 963 would win.

It would seem trivial to announce the final three figures as ones which would best suit the racketeers.
Seems odd this didn’t occur to them.

I don’t have any way to confirm this but in the mid 80s I was told the numbers racket was still operating in New York. Related to this, but possibly confirmable, I was told that one of the NYC newspapers (perhaps the DailyNews) would list a daily horse race that didn’t occur and the payoff amount on that race was the daily number.

Even more anecdotal (read that as less reliable), my grandmother told me she used to play the numbers way back when, and when her number finally hit her ‘contact’ wouldn’t pay up, claiming some sort of mixup that day. She said she threatened to call the police and then he paid up. But she made up a lot of stuff.