Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars

Credit: Alex Williamson An Exploration of Gambling in '20's and '30's New York
…White, Garton, Robertson and White have come up with a fascinating and readable story that will appeal to fans of gambling history and the history of the United States alike.

Playing the Numbers

Author: White, Garton, Robertson & White

Publisher: Harvard University Press

ISBN-13: 9780674051072

Question: What does a run-down area of New York have to do with state lotteries and financial spread betting?

On the face of it, probably not much, but that’s before you delve inside ‘Playing the Numbers’, a look at the role of ‘Clearing House numbers’ betting which took parts of the city by storm during the 1920s and 1930s.

Subtitled “Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars” this book, written by four (count ’em) Australian academics, looks out of the ordinary among the shelves of poker strategy, bad-beat anthologies and Spread-Betting for Dummies guides.

In fact, with its cover featuring a film-noir-style dapper gent in white suit and Fedora you’re instantly transported to a bygone era.

Set in America, most particularly Harlem, New York, in the 1920s this book is a unique snapshot in history giving an insight into a fascinating period of (mostly) African-American culture that is rarely considered in gaming tomes.

Betting on the Banks

In fact, obsessed as we are with the Depression and Prohibition, with Al Capone and the rise of the Mafia, the craze of gambling on the “Clearing House numbers” has been unfairly overlooked.

Devised and dominated by the immigrant poor this obsession that coursed its way through many American cities in the 1920s seems little more than sick, chance-driven, high stakes gambling.

NY Clearing House

The New York Clearing House was a financial institution that collated and published the settlements of the city’s banks. A particular combination of these numbers, announced every day at 10am, were what the players were betting on.

Essentially a cross between a lottery and the pools, a “banker” would have scores of “runners” visiting players in their homes/cafes/ workplace etc gathering bets that often only amounted to pennies, but, as the odds of a “hit” were 600-1, scores of people played, making this an exceptionally lucrative activity for the runners and, particularly, the bankers.

Shaping New York

Playing the Numbers Book Cover

The key was its accessibility and that it was, predominantly, the preserve of African-Americans. As a result it shaped and defined their culture during this period and, so the authors claim, influenced New York’s evolution.

Illegal as playing the numbers was it wasn’t racketeering or the violent gangland-style gambling that the era has become famous for. Bankers were often flamboyant, popular caricatures, known as “Kings and Queens” and for a decade it remained the close-knit preserve and relatively trouble-free activity of the poor African-American.

Of course, with the Great Depression and Prohibition arriving, mobsters were left out of work and looking for a new source of income. That’s where the Numbers proved a lucrative new sideline.

Ultimately, the Numbers would grow into lotteries across the US and ironically, today casual ‘traders’ sitting on their laptops can log-on and bet on the rise and fall of the stock markets with a click of the mouse. Things have come full circle.

A Fascinating and Readable Story

While undoubtedly Playing The Numbers has an interesting story, you need only look at the front cover to see the book’s problem: it’s written by four academics. There’s no doubt that the extensive and meticulous research is all there, but occasionally the multiple voices scrabble for your attention. They could also have done with an editor to oversee the wordy parts. And certainly there was at least one argument about whether the book should have been a history account or a pulp fiction thriller.

Style aside, White, Garton, Robertson and White have come up with a fascinating and readable story that will appeal to fans of gambling history and the history of the United States alike.