RARA-AVIS: Re: Numbers Games

Joe Kraus (j-kraus@nwu.edu)
Sun, 15 Mar 1998 18:57:11 -0600 Bill Denton writes:

>Speaking of gambling, can someone explain the numbers racket to me?
>Did people really just pick a number and wait for someone, somewhere,
>to tell them that their number had won? It sounds even stupider than
>slot machines.

The numbers were pretty stupid, but they were stupid more along lottery
lines than slots.

The winning number usually came from some supposedly reliable and random
source, such as the final three digits of the total volume on the stock
market that day. (Because that number was so large, the ones, tens, and
100s digits were essentially random.) It had to be a public number that
virtually anyone could find in the newspaper or on the radio.

My personal favorite twist on the deal was the gimmick supposedly worked
out by Abbadabba Berman for Dutch Schultz. A couple of books claim that
Berman got the idea to switch the number to the final three digits in the
racing handle at one of the New York area tracks. In theory that should
have been random as well; since Schultz controlled key parts of the track
himself, though, he and Berman could add in a final bet or two to change
the official handle. That way, they could check to see if there were any
numbers getting heavy play and keep themselves from getting hit too hard by
any particularly popular number. (Some days, some numbers just wound up
popular; 704 was supposed to be a hot choice on the 4th of July, for

The whole thing does sound silly to a non-lottery player like myself, but
keep in mind that this was all tax-free money and that even the biggest
gougers -- like Schultz -- generally paid much higher odds than the lottery
does today. They say it was as easy to put a numbers bet down here on
Chicago's West Side in the '30s as it is to buy a lottery ticket today.
Every little store front around figured it helped out business and held out
the chance of a pay-off, too.

Joe Kraus
Department of English
Northwestern University
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