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P is for Policy (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)


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.

John “Mushmouth” Johnson Policy King in Chicago

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.

ROARING TWENTIES AtoZ - Policy - Especially popular in the African American communities in big cities, policy - the ancestor of lottery - was a means to gain some more money... and almost a kind of cult for people who practiced it


  • Mee Magnum
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 02:25

    I love reading all of your articles. You bring the 20’s to life. I didn’t know about ‘policy’. I knew there were numbers games, but didn’t know that this is what it was called.

    –Mee (The Chinese Quest)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2015 at 08:08

      Well, that at least is what it was called in the African American communities :-)

  • Barbara In Caneyhead
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 05:05

    Sounds like the government run lotteries we have today, to me. Ann Richards dragged Texas into that racket. Sad, sad day for my state.
    Visit me at: Life & Faith in Caneyhead
    I am Ensign B of Tremps’ Troops
    with the A to Z Challenge

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2015 at 08:09

      In fact policy died out when the lottery was born.

  • Lanise Brown
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 10:00

    This is really interesting. I’d never heard of policy in this way before. Do you think this numbers game influenced the lotteries that later popped up in the 1960s?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2015 at 11:13

      They were basically the same thing, and in fact, when the lottery was introduced, the policy disappeared.

  • Tasha
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 09:06

    Seems a shame the Italians muscled in on the Policy Kings even if they were running a racket.
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

  • Jeri Burns
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 11:32

    This is one of my favorites of your series!! There is something about the way you craft the post into a story format – even that ‘false start’ beginning is a hook, it digs the hook in a bit deeper when the tone shifts. And when you said “….where numbers wrought themselves into everybody’s lives…” I was dangling from your fishing line. What a beautifully wrought phrase.

    Now I wonder – for my work I use the term gig. Does that mean I am confined to 3 digits for the rest of my career? :)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2015 at 18:57

      Hey, thanks! I didn’t realise this post had a different voice from the other :-)

      Now, regarding your gig problem… let me cosult this dreams book.

  • Diane Coto
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 14:13

    Hi there – I can see how ‘Policy’ led to the lottery. That’s interesting.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2015 at 19:01

      But is lotto a ‘cult’ too in the US? Here in Italy, it’s very similar to what the policy was for these communitites.
      That’s odd, isn’t it?

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 12:14

    I read it, and I am not sure I fully comprehend what’s going on, but it sounds fascinating… I had a whole different understanding of what policy meant… :D

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
    MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2015 at 18:59

      When I read about the policy in Black Metropolis, I imediately understood everything. Lotto in Italy is pretty much the same thing ;-)

  • Sara C. Snider
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 12:22

    Wow, how fascinating. The preoccupation with numbers sounds both complex and exhausting (and yes, very cult-like), which then, I imagine, fuels the Policy game itself.
    And the Policy Kings sound like a decent lot, all things considered. Really enjoyable post. I’m glad you found my blog, which then let me find you. :)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2015 at 19:00

      Thanks so much for stopping by. I’m gland you’re enjoying my posts.
      I’m enjoying you blog a lto too :-)

  • Alex Hurst
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 15:13

    Sad to hear the policy kings were taken over by the Italian mobs. That is too bad… even though, honestly, when you were mentioning a cult, my mind went to Taoism and lucky directions/numbers for each person based on birth day… different beasts entirely! XD

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2015 at 19:03

      Isn’t it intersting how numbers take up different meaning in different cultures? And one would think number are the most objective of things…

  • stephen tremp
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 16:11

    This is the weekend before the last full week of A to Z. You’re amazing for staying with us this long. Thanks for your commitment. You’re almost there. This event only happens once a year, so rest up and get ready for the home stretch!

    Stephen Tremp
    A to Z Cohost
    P is for Paranormal Vs. Supernatural

    • Post Author
      Posted April 18, 2015 at 19:04

      Thanks so much for you incuragement. I’m having a lot of fun!

  • Lillian Csernica
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 22:18

    I had no idea! This is eye-opening. I must applaud the depth of your research and the intriguing way you present your information.

  • Clarabelle Rant
    Posted April 19, 2015 at 06:07

    I had heard about the numbers game, but didn’t know it was called “policy” and that there were “policy kings.” I wish our modern day mafia would learn a thing or two about supporting where you live, but they don’t seem to get it. I’m not just talking about street mafia, I’m talking about bank/white collar mafia, too.

    You can find me here:

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2015 at 18:10

      I think there is a contradiction in terms between ‘mafia’ and ‘helping’

  • Sherry Ellis
    Posted April 19, 2015 at 23:04

    That’s an interesting bit of history from the roaring twenties!

  • Roland Clarke
    Posted April 21, 2015 at 13:46

    Another aspect of the Twenties that I never knew – feeling very educated, thanks Sarah.

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