Whatever happened to the numbers racket?

I went to ask.com and asked “what happened to the numbers racket”.

It gave me a few links to some encyclopedias. Apparently, this racket is still being played in various parts of the USA. Players bet on a 3 digit number. In an honest pool where no one profits except the winners, the odds would be 1,000 to 1.

But every reference I have found indicates the odds are usually 600 to 1. So if someone bets $1 and loses, 60 cents would go towards paying the winners but 40 cents would go to the people who run the racket.

As I understand it, there was a time (I’d guess that was in the 30s and 40s) when this was a very popular racket and many people would wager a dime or some other small amount of money almost daily. They hoped for the thrill of winning $60 when picking the right number and wagering a dime.

My question is, “Whatever happened to this racket?” Even if it is still played in some places, it used to be very commonplace and now you almost never hear of it anymore.

There must have been some event that largely shut it down. Maybe a big arrest? Maybe something else?

I’m curious how and why it is that the transition seems to be kept quiet.

Does anyone know what happened?

Isn’t a legal state lottery basically the exact same racket, including the cut for the house (40% for the house cut is about the ballpark)

Because its hard to collect your prize ?
Why wouldn’t you just buy a scratchie. Instant notification and probably ability to claim.
… You are still at the coffee shop down the road from where you bought the tickets.

Two things…

First, the RICO act. What was once seen as harmless was correctly tied to organized crime. Making book and running number could now get you in deep shit.
Second, the state lottery. Why do it illegally when you can buy a legit ticket at the 7-11?

To be pedantic, the true odds are 999 to 1. And do note that 40% vigorish is not out of line on a high payoff bet. That’s better (all things considered) than offered in state-run lotteries, and even slightly better than you’d get trying to multiply your bankroll by 600 making only even-money bets at an American roulette wheel. (This latter claim was discussed in previous threads such as this one.)

A similar numbers racket is alive and well throughout Thailand, so much so that simple lists of numbers are prima facie evidence for arrest! 600-1 is the “wholesale” payoff, 500-1 “retail,” the difference being profit for the runner. A close relative, now deceased, was an operator and explained some of the details to me. He got only the “wholesale” price when he laid off bets on another operator; I almost got involved to perform that function … but as a foreigner I would have run considerable risk!

Not sure but I’d guess it has to do with the legalisation of lotteries in the US in the 1960s-1970s (approximate time period is according to this site), which led to an increased crackdown on illegal lotteries.

Previous thread: Does the numbers racket still exist?

The racket still exists, but the leg breakers are government folks.

And I asked about it in 2007, but didn’t get quite the activity.

People do sometimes still run small-scale numbers rackets (especially in insular immigrant communities.) But the big mob-run rackets are all but obsolete due to legalized state lotteries. No point in tracking down a number runner when you can buy a scratcher for a dollar at any store.


Also, urban living has changed since the 1930/40/50’s when the numbers rackets were in full swing. Many people who live in the city no longer know one another and thus would be unlikely to give the trust to people that they would in times past. Trust is the key to any policy game

Additionally, many people have left the cities for the suburbs leaving a smaller group of people in the core urban areas where the numbers/policy rackets use to predominate. While younger people are moving back into cities, with no experience with such a gambling system, its appeal to them would be limited.

Finally, cheaper long distance, cable television (with 24 hour sports channels), national newspapers, the Internet made sports gaming a far more lucrative business than the numbers policy ever could be. Why waste time and money collecting small bets when you can take larger ones, 24 hours a day, on a host of sports events from around the world?

Earn more, doing less.

But IIRC, the state lotteries didn’t begin until the 70s and the numbers racket was mostly dead by the 50s.

Whatever the actual dates were, it seems to me there was a very long period between the time that the number rackets died and the state lotteries began. But I could be mistaken about that.

This is not the case.
My grandfather owned a bar in South Side Chicago in the mid 1970s and the number was still big then. The Lotto didn’t come to Illinois/Indiana until the 1980s

I think a lot has gone underground. What changed as far as I saw, was that the big factories, that employed 1000’s of workers, have mostly closed. When the lottery came in, it really helped the numbers game, as the 3 digit lottery number became the number. ( sounds goofy, but I think you understand? )

As I remember, it payed off @500:1 One guy I knew that was in it in the 80’s, had thousands of 1 dollar bills in his house. His group eventually bought a car wash to launder the money. The feds did eventually get them, I think they still came out ahead. I think it is still popular in the urban areas, just not talked about. Enforcement was not always tough on it. My friends ran the operation for years, and the local police never cared, they saw it as a victimless crime. The feds were the ones that put their hands on them.

Schenectady’s numbers runners were still in force in the late 70s, even when there were lottery tickets and OTB (Schenectady was one of the first areas to get OTB in the state, believing it would cut down on bookies and numbers runners).

Now the people playing the numbers were growing older by that time and younger people were sticking with legal gambling.

IIRC, the numbers in Chicago were called “Policy wheel”

It was called both.
On the West Side it was numbers.
On the South Side it was policy.

While that may be true if you confine yourself to 50-50 bets like black-red or odd-even, that’s not really the way to get a 600-1 payoff. You could, for example, bet on a pair of numbers getting $18 for a $1 bet then let it ride getting 1818 = 324 and finally betting on black getting 648 for your $1. Your chances of doing this are (2/38)(2/38)*(18/38) = 1.312%. The expected payoff is 85 cents, so the casino is only taking 15%. This is quite a bit better than a 40% rake.

Thank you, Captain Obvious. It appears you did not click the link. And BTW, correct play in roulette to achieve a goal is always to make an appropriately-sized bet on a single number.

There was a banner ad for Quibids at the bottom of this thread when I loaded it up, so maybe penny auctions are the new game :smiley: