What is a Numbers Rackets

If you believe crime fiction, the Numbers Racket was all the rage amongst the urban low-life. What all the books I have read fail to do is explain just what it is. It sounds like some sort of illicit lottery but beyond that I am clueless. So, how did it work and does it still go on?

Well, my grandfather used to play, before Pennsylvania got it’s state lottery. Basically, he would pick a three digit number, pay a bookie some cash on a daily (or weekly) basis, and listen to the stock report on the radio at the end of the day. There was a certain combination of numbers he’d listen for, and from those numbers he’d either win (around $500) or not. Pretty sure he’d either make the payments or pick-up the cash from a guy he worked with.

Shortly after the lottery was established there, and they had a daily 3 digit drawing, people could still make illegal bets. The advantage was any winnings would be tax free and not reported to any local or national tax officials.

Now, as for him being a low-life … :: puts up dukes ::

The state lotteries are the same as numbers. Usually, the number was taken from the last three digits of something like the number of shares traded on the NY Stock Exchange, or the total handle at a local race track. If you hit, you got a payoff. IIRC, it was about $600 for a $1 bet.

The best movie about the numbers was Force of Evil, which explains the mechanism as part of the plot.

It’s also called running numbers.

My pious and beatific sicilian nonna used to collect bets, payoff winnings, and run numbers for the East Boston numbers racketeers herself. It was a social thing, and just… well… not understood by the law. Some laws were just, how shall I put it, well, they went unacknowledged entirely.

She was simple folk, devout Roman Catholic, but not “lowlife” by any means.

(Her habit of eating whole cloves of garlic, peeled and deep fried in olive oil, like they were popcorn and then grabbing a pinchful of my cheek and pulling my face close and saying “Hhhhhowwww’s my little Rickheeeey dhoooooing twhoooooday?” breathing right in my face, now that was truly vile.)

AKA running the numbers, butter and eggs, etc. all using some preagreed numbers to determine the payoff. Usually relatively small amounts bet, and commensurate payoffs. Have no idea as to house percentage. State run lotteries have pretty big house %, while an ‘office’ ballgame board is 1:100 and no overhead.

All are fool’s games based on the false hope by each player/payer that his luck is better than that of the next fool’s!

Actually, the illegal numbers games gave odds that were substantially better than modern state-run lotteries. They didn’t have the heavy infrastructure, didn’t siphon a large portion off to the general treasury, and paid the winners cash on the barrel-head, none of this 20-year annuity nonsense.

As the saying goes, the lottery is a tax on people who don’t understand math.

My understanding of how numbers traditionally worked is that someone would put down $1 on a three digit number (1 in 1000 chance). The day’s number would be the three digits of the thousands group in the number of shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange. So, if 22,363,247 shares traded that day’s number would be 363. If you got the number, you would get a $500 payoff on a one dollar bet.

For a straight pick three digit pick in New York Lottery numbers game, a $1 bet will win $500, the same as the illegal numbers games. The NY Lottery also allows boxes and other bet combinations.

In Philly, the ‘street number’ paid (pays?) 600-1 vs the State’s 500-1 and was (is?) a combination of horse racing outcomes in various races.

(For the daily number = pick three)

I thought that was the stock market!