There’s something to say about policy, it wasn’t what it may look like at first.
How about this: policy was an illegal number game very popular throughout the first half of the XX century.
Boring, uhu? Let’s try again. Policy was very popular inside African American communities, where numbers wrought themselves into everybody’s life in a very intimate way, in a way, in fact, that Drake and Cayton defined nothing short than a cult in their seminal work Black Metropolis.
To play the policy, you needed numbers and numbers could be gauged anywhere because life itself would offer them. The numbers on the plate of a car involved in an accident, an eye-catching sequence of numbers in an ad, a phone number with repeating digits. Anything was good for gauging numbers, but nothing was as good and powerful as numbers coming from dreams. All kind of ‘dream books’ explained the meaning, in terms of numbers, of any dream, but if you needed some extra help, you could turn to some expert in dreams. This could be anyone, even an expert bettor, but very often, these people were advisers. They helped sorting out problems, they were spiritual and emotional supporters, and because the hails of life always meant something, advisers were able to turn life experiences into lucky numbers. You just had to be watchful and pay attention and life itself would bring your luck to you.
As stated, it was a cult.
The actuality of the game was this. Players tried to guess numbers ranging from 1 to 78. They could place their bets with writers who canvassed the neighbourhood or in policy stations located anywhere throughout the community, from cigar shops to garages, to barbershops and even private apartments. They could also place bets in specifically devoted places called books, which were where the wheel was. (and be careful, every wheel had its name, so that was material for gauging too). The wheel was a tumbling drum and several times a day (up to four times) numbers were drawn from the wheel. Drawings were always very busy events, attended by hundreds of people (writers, habitual bettors, regular guys), especially when a heat number hadn’t come out for a long time. It was a kind of social event.
Several policy games ran at any given time, with winning number drawn up from any single wheel up to four times a day. The winning numbers were printed on thousand of individual slip papers as well as on community’s newspapers.
The reason why the policy was so popular is that bets could be placed even for very small amounts of money so that really anyone could bet. And it’s true, you bet against terrible odds, but you could win big. Depending on how much money a bettor paid, payoffs for a dime could range from fifty cents (for a single number guessed correctly) to $ 200 (for five numbers guessed correctly), which allowed a family to live for many months. The most common bet was for three numbers, which was called a gig.
The policy racket was originally controlled by African American gangsters called Policy Kings, who especially in the Twenties gained so much power to be able to influence local politics. But by the 1930s, white gangsters – mainly Italian – had taken over the business everywhere but in Chicago.
The difference was crucial for the black community, which was always the stronger participant in the game. White gangsters would take the money and invest it somewhere else when the Policy Kings would take the money and reinvest it mostly in the community itself. At the height of their power, for example, in Chicago, the Policy Kings provided 5000 jobs for the Chicago African American community, but they also invested in legitimate businesses that provided yet more jobs. They made substantial and ongoing donation to the neighbourhood charities, churches and hospitals, they helped professionals starting their practices and supported promising students going through school.
These are the reasons why, in spite of their shady activities, the Policy Kings were well-loved and respected inside their communities.
Chicago Tribune – The the Policy King Ruled
Robert M. Lombardo, The Black Mafia: African-American organized crime in Chicago 1890–1960 (pdf)
Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, St. Clair Drake and Horace A. Cayton, University of Chicago Press, 1945.