What was Numbers?

In the 1920s, Numbers gambling was a black-owned and black-run business—one of very few in Harlem—that turned over tens of millions of dollars every year, as roughly one in two of the district’s residents bet with some regularity. It was also illegal.

How was Numbers played?

Individuals wagered on which number between 0 and 999 would turn up as the day’s number. There were other possible ways of betting. The box play, more common in the 1930s, was a way of gambling on all possible combinations of the three digits in a number – not just 896, but also 869, 689, 698, 968, and 986. As well, there was the one number play, where the gambler bet on just one digit which could be either the first, middle or last digit. Similarly, a bolita was a bet on the last two digits of the three digit number. What was particularly ingenious was the way in which daily numbers were randomly generated: each day at 10 am (after 1928, 11.30 am), an employee of the New York Clearing House, a financial institution that facilitated the daily exchanges and settlements of money between the city’s banks, wrote the total of the daily clearances between the member banks and the Federal Reserve Bank credit balance on a chalk board. The daily number was worked out by combining the second and third digits from the bank clearings with the third digit from the Federal Reserve Bank balance. The chance of any number “hitting” was one in one thousand, but anyone who managed to overcome these odds and win, was paid off on their bets, which usually ranged from pennies to a few dollars, at the rate of six hundred to one.

On December 31, 1930, the New York Clearing House stopped publishing the daily numbers, forcing bankers to come up with alternative ways of generating numbers.  None had the reputation for being unfixable that the Clearing House numbers had, but the most widely used were the mutuel totals paid out on horse races.  The total of the payout for a $1 bet to win and to place of the first three horses in a race was the total for that race.  The first digit to the left of the decimal point of the cumulative totals for the first three races, first five races and first seven races were then used sequentially to make up the daily number.

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