History of gambling in the USA

Some sources name New York the birthplace of gambling in the USA; others say it was in Chicago where the first – back-then illegal – lotteries began. Policy was an illegal lottery first introduced in Chicago in 1885 by an operator nick-named Policy Sam. It soon spread around the country and, despite anti-policy laws, which started appearing on the books as early as 1901, it flourished everywhere in America until legal numbers games such as state lotteries supplanted it. Eventually the use of the term “policy” for this type of game came to imply an African-American clientele, for among Italian-Americans a similar illegal lottery was called “the numbers,” while Cuban-Americans in New York referred to their lottery as “bolita.” The name “policy” may have come from a verbal code that the numbers runners (ticket sellers) used when collecting bets on the street: “Would you like to take out an insurance policy?” they asked. One could also play at a “policy shop” or “policy office,” where the bets were taken and the stakes held by “policy writers.” American gamblers have their own version of lottery – numbers game, also known as “numbers racket”, “policy game”, “bolita”, “mutual numbers”, and “negro numbers”.

Rules of the Game

The objective of any lottery is for players to make a bet and guess a random number. The winning numbers can be determined in various ways, and this is what makes lottery games differ from each other.

In Chicago policy bets were placed on groups of numbers from 1 through 78 (coincidentally the number of cards in a Tarot deck). Borrowing from horseracing terminology, a two-number betting combination was called a “saddle,” a three-number combination a “gig,” and a four-number combination a “horse.” Gigs were the most popular play, but bets could be made in combinations of up to 25 numbers. Some gigs were so well known that they had their own names, such as “the washerwoman’s gig” (4, 11, 44) and “the dirty gig” (3, 6, 9). In the 19th century, a wager could be as low as one cent per number or three cents per gig; by the 1930s most operators set a three-cent or nickel lower limit on bets. The payout was usually ten-to-one, but higher payouts were made for groups of numbers.

In New York during the 1920s, policy operators tampered with their wheels so often that an “honest” version of the game was established in which gig bets were taken on the last three numbers of the daily Federal Reserve Clearing House Report. The policy company that ran this game, known as “Clearing-House,” was immune to charges of corruption, and offered a further advantage that the bettor did not need to contact a runner or return to the office to learn if he or she had won – because the numbers were printed in the daily newspapers. In the South another “on-the-level” policy game, called “The Cotton Exchange,” derived its winning numbers from the daily spot prices for cotton on the Chicago Board of Trade.

Lottery Cheaters

Through the history of illegal lotteries the operators developed a great variety of ways to deceive gamblers by determining the results. For example, in Cuban Bolita, which was brought to Tampa, FL in the 1880s and flourished in Latin saloons, 100 ivory balls were placed into a velvet sack, which was tightly sealed. To choose the “correct” ball out from the sack the operator simply kept it in the fridge until the drawing began.