"Playing The Numbers"

Having just watched “Billy Bathgate,” I have a question.

What is “Playing the numbers?” Obviously, some kind of betting or other illegal activity. But I have no clue what exactly it is. A lottery? Something like Kino?


Interesting to see the “real” Dutch Schultz referenced in that article after seeing him played by Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman bears a resemblance to the real guy, too.

Also interesting: the Wiki link explains that the rakeoff on the illegal numbers game was 20 to 40%, which was widely decried as a ripoff. Now that the game is legal and state-run (in many areas), the rakeoff is often 50%.

Yeah, it’s nice to be the one who gets to decide what is and isn’t a ripoff.

Playing the numbers was also called playing the Wheel. There were several popular wheels in Chicago in the '40s and '50s. I don’t know if there was an actual wheel that was spun to generate numbers, or if that was just the implication. A woman who used to work for us on the south side played what she called the Policy or the Wheel, and I remember seeing her surreptitiously unfold some little slips of paper with a bunch of numbers printed on them from time to time. And, at some point, it was considered an insult to say, “Ahh, your mudder plays da numbers.”

This short thread on rigging the numbers would have been more interesting if the link in post #2 was still available.

Well, to be fair, it’s not like the rake is being used to buy a new Lincoln Towncar for Vinny the Nose. State lottery money that doesn’t go to prize winners (or rolled into the next jackpot) funds state programs that either couldn’t be paid for otherwise, would require higher taxes, or cutting budgets of other programs. And you reap the benefit of that whether you win, lose, or don’t even play.

Just to make it more interesting, here is the relevant section from Kill the Dutchman! beginning 4/5ths down at: