WHAT WAS POLICY?
By Michael Theobald
Lotteries, legal and illegal, have been around pretty much forever. There’s evidence that the Great Wall of China was built, at least in part, from the proceeds of a lottery. The Romans had them. They were big in the Middle Ages. The word “Lottery” is derived from the Dutch word for “fate.”
Policy, also known as “the numbers,” or “the bug,” among other names, emerged as a street version of lotteries in the 19th Century, and was popular among blacks, Italians and other ethnic minorities. The term “Policy” has its origins in the Spanish-Cuban version of the game in which little balls marked with numbers, “bolitos,” were drawn from a tumbler. That word was mixed with the idea of life insurance policies, which were pretty much the first national black-owned, black-centered businesses in the U.S. and the windfall of cash that collecting on a policy represented.
The game worked different ways in different places. In some cities, players chose a number between 001 and 999, and the daily newspaper report of the take at the local racetrack, or the closing number of the stock market was the winning number. Although the odds were basically one in one thousand, the payoff was more like 600 to 1, leaving a lot of money to go to the game’s operators.
In Chicago’s Bronzeville, the odds were worse. Players chose multiple numbers from between 1 and 78. A player could play a dime on one number, “a day number,” and get fifty cents back. A three number bet, a “gig,” paid $20 for the same dime. For an extra dime’s insurance, they could play a “saddle,” betting that two of the three numbers from their gig would hit, winning them a dollar. In usual operation, policy operators paid about 40% of the take out to winners, another 10% to their employees and for police and political protection, and pocketed the other 50%.
As many as thirty different “books” or “wheels” were running in Bronzeville, with names like “The Monte Carlo,” “The Royal Palm,” “The Bronx,” “The Harlem” and “The North and South.”
Crowds would gather to watch the drawings, which frequently happened at midnight. As each number was called, a press operator would slap the numbers into a printing press, and as soon as the last number was called and set, the press would begin cranking out slips, which would be rushed to waiting cars for distribution throughout Bronzeville. At policy stations throughout the Black Belt of Chicago—about 500 barbershops, pool halls, and other small businesses—more players would gather to wait to see if they’d won, to collect their winnings or place their bets for the next day.
But even though people knew the odds were bad, they still played. It was fun, it gave players something to look forward to, and chance to dream about hitting it big. It kept money flowing within the neighborhood and the policy operators became generous benefactors to the community, offering small business loans, employing hundreds, donating to hospitals, schools and other charities and becoming revered and celebrated figures in Bronzeville.