How The State Stole The Lottery

Numbers don’t exist in a vacuum, especially when they make up a game that’s an essential part of a community. And sometimes they turn into a game so good that states and nations want it for themselves.

Games like Policy, The Bug, and Numbers have a complex history dating back nearly two centuries in the United States, and the people involved has run the gamut from kingpins who ran cities to neighborhood moms providing for their families. How can a game where the math is so clearly against the player wind up being one of the threads that holds a community together?

The 3-digit game of Numbers is the perfect fit: it’s easy to understand. It’s easy to play, and it can cost as little as a penny. But the remarkable thing is how the odds of winning nestle with concepts like Dunbar’s Number and Girard’s mimetic desire as wins come infrequently enough to be thrilling, but often enough to keep everyone playing. And in a time when economic opportunities were slim and the socio-political climate was oppressive, a little hope went a long way.

With tens of thousands of employees and a mix of scenes from horse racing tracks to diners, Numbers and the games like it were a daily presence in the lives of millions across the United States. And while we can play these games more easily than ever almost everywhere in the world, regulating them has stripped the community bonds that made them so great.

The history of Numbers, Policy, and lotteries is a fascinating dive into community histories from Boston to Harlem to Detroit — READ THEIR STORIES:

“The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers,” Bridgett M. Davis. https://www.amazon.com/World-According-Fannie-Davis-Mothers/dp/0316558737

“Numbers And Neighborhoods: Seeking And Selling The American Dream In Detroit One Bet At A Time,” Dr. Felicia George. https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/oa_dissertations/1311/

Dr. George’s Detroit Numbers presentation: https://youtu.be/lkbSP9EV0nU


“Stephanie St. Clair, Harlem’s ‘Numbers Queen’”: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/meet-stephanie-st-clair-immigrant-turned-millionaire-who-dominated-harlems-gambling-underground-180977759/

“My Mother Was a Betting Woman,” Bridgett M. Davis: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/02/opinion/sunday/lottery-gambling-mother.html
Criminal, Episode 108: https://thisiscriminal.com/episode-108-the-numbers-2-15-2019/

“Kings: The True Story of Chicago’s Policy Kings and Numbers Racketeers, an Informal History,” Nathan Thompson. https://www.amazon.com/Kings-Chicagos-Numbers-Racketeers-Informal/dp/B000PS6BFU

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Hosted and Produced by Kevin Lieber
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Research and Writing by Matthew Tabor

Editing by John Swan

Huge Thanks To Paula Lieber

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