Playing the Numbers

2010 June 14
by Ellen Noonan

Policy Pete's Dream Book, c. 1940sAnyone who has studied the history of black urban neighborhoods (or read any amount of African-American memoir and fiction) has probably seen references to playing the numbers, a form of gambling that predated government sponsored lotteries. If you’re like me, your understanding of the numbers is vague. But now Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915-1930–a site created by the University of Sydney historians Shane White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson, and Graham White–has provided a handy reference guide. It’s designed to accompany their book Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars, recently published by Harvard University Press. You can learn how players placed their bets, which “kings and queens” ran the trade, and even see pages from one of the many “dream books” that players used to select lucky numbers. The best detail of all may be how the winning number was selected, but I’m not telling… you’ll have to investigate for yourself.

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