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Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars Hardcover – June 14, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

Review

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)

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)

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)

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)

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 Wall Street Journal 2010-05-05)

[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 2010-07-01)

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 2010-09-01)

About the Author

Shane White is Professor of History at the University of Sydney.

Stephen Garton is Professor of History at the University of Sydney.

Stephen Robertson is Professor of History at the University of Sydney.

Graham Whiteis Professor of History at the University of Sydney.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Apparent First Edition edition (May 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674051076
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674051072
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #558,212 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Neurasthenic TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book is both a cultural study of the people who played the Numbers, and a history of the game. The latter was, to me, more interesting than the former. We learn about the evolution of the Numbers from the earlier "policy" game, the biographies of the early Numbers bankers and the later "Kings" and "Queens" of the game after its rapid expansion in the 1920s following the adoption of Clearing House totals as a perhaps incorruptible source of random numbers. Among the most amusing parts of the book are the discussion of how black New York's fascination with this game trickled into the lives of uncomprehending white Americans, as employees of the New York Clearing House were bombarded with calls and letters from black Numbers players looking for an edge, and newspapers printed financial statistics of no interest to anybody but numbers players.

The book loses steam when the gangsters Dutch Schultz and, later, the Italian Mafia, intruded on the game. The authors end the tale entirely around the late 1930s, though it continued to be played for decades.

Those familiar with Harlem know how important the Numbers were; more than one source says that over 50% of all economic activity in the neighborhood derived from the game as recently as the 1970s. However, I've read dozens of books about Harlem, including Francis Ianni's Black Mafia, and no other book covers this topic nearly as well as this one.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By John Harshaw on April 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Best book on the New York Numbers Game. Takes the reader through every facet of the Numbers game and how it exploded across America before there was a state lottery Next best is Bankers, Writers and Runners.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I love it. I couldn't put it down.
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Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars
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