Cover: Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars, from Harvard University PressCover: Playing the Numbers in HARDCOVER

Playing the Numbers

Gambling in Harlem between the Wars

Long before the arrival of glossy state-run lotteries in the 1960s and ’70s, smaller lotteries—illegal, but almost as well-organized as a Powerball drawing—thrived in poor neighborhoods. In Chicago, the lotteries were known as the policy racket. In New York, they were called the numbers game. The history of these illicit enterprises is a picaresque mélange of race and class, business acumen and organized crime. A significant part of the story—Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s—receives a thorough and insightful treatment in Playing the Numbers, which recounts a flowering of black entrepreneurship in addition to capturing how integral the numbers game was to the lives of average Harlemites… Playing the Numbers brims with fascinating, colorful stories about a little-known facet of New York life.—Michael J. Agovino, The Wall Street Journal

[Playing the Numbers] draws on an array of sources—from the back issues of Harlem’s newspapers, to probation reports and the case files of the New York City district attorney, to the literature and memoirs of the Harlem Renaissance—to illuminate the scope of the numbers game and the sometimes harmless, sometimes farcical, often sociable, but ultimately insidious ways it permeated nearly every aspect of Harlemites’ daily lives and even their dream lives. The result: an intricate sociology of organized crime.—Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic

Brilliantly reconstructs the world of the numbers trade, showing how it provided, for at least a decade and a half, a space for an African American entrepreneurship that mirrored, in a gaudy and distorting way, the mainstream financial institutions and activities of the city. There is astute attention throughout this book to this shadow relationship to mainstream commerce… The research underlying this short and elegantly written book is extraordinary. Years of detailed work in New York judicial and legal records, as well as in newspapers and literary sources, makes this an almost uncannily well-informed book… This is history as work of art, a dazzling demonstration of what can be done with sources—such as lower court prosecutor records—so voluminous and so miscellaneous that they have never been mined in this way before.—David Goodman, Australian Book Review

A brilliant reconstruction of a critical African American—and American—institution. Essential reading for those who play and those who don’t.—Ira Berlin, author of Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America

Most folks living in Harlem in the 1920s ‘hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance,’ Langston Hughes once observed. ‘And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.’ But everyone in Harlem knew about the numbers, and those who hit the daily ‘gig’ earned plenty… This is a wonderful, unconventional, utterly original book.—James T. Campbell, author of Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787–2005

Playing the Numbers is a gripping, sometimes violent, often humorous tale of politics, commerce, community and culture, a must-read for anyone remotely interested in the history of Harlem or the mechanics of the most elaborate informal economy in the nation.—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Deeply and imaginatively researched, Playing the Numbers reveals how a simple game of chance evolved for thousands of Harlemites in the 1920s into a central part of their everyday life. A fascinating study of the interior of black society, the sights, styles, and sounds of the black metropolis.—Leon F. Litwack, author of Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow

Awards & Accolades

  • 2009 Roy Rosenzweig Fellowship for Innovation in Digital History, American Historical Association and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University
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Books influence us in untold ways, and the ones that influence us the most are often read in childhood. Harvard University Press Senior Editor Julia Kirby is reminded of this on the anniversary of the birth of one of this country’s most celebrated economists. This month would have brought Thomas Schelling’s one-hundredth birthday—and he got closer to seeing it than many mortals. The Nobel laureate economist died just five years ago, after a brilliant career as both a scholar and an advisor to US foreign policy strategists. What better day to dip into his classic work