In case you thought the numbers racket was an artifact of a bygone era:
Twenty-five years after New York State started a legal version of these small-time tests of chance, the underground games survive, a pounding ventricle of New York neighborhood life run on a heady concoction of numerology and poverty, superstition and fate.
The games' endurance, particularly in big East Coast cities, is no great mystery. The street pays better odds than the state, tax-free, and money speaks every language in the city.
There is a woman in Upper Manhattan who takes bets in the back of a dive, a union man in the elevator of a newspaper office. Countless young men keep the books by memory, moving money from bodegas to banks, pleasing their mothers with a job safer than running drugs. The music of the dance is the promise of a tiny windfall, enough to change life a bit for a short while, for the price of a lucky number.
...The basic structure of the games has been the same for generations. A player picks a number, usually three digits, and bets anywhere from a fistful of coins to $30 that the number will hit, meaning that it will be chosen as a winning number of the day.
The chances of winning with a three-digit number are 1,000 to 1, and the payoff is usually 600 to 1, sometimes less. New York Numbers, the state-sponsored game, pays 500 to 1.
Methods for determining the winning numbers in the street game vary. Court and other records show that the Brooklyn Handle game gets its winning number from the total sum of money - the handle - bet during the day on all the races at a given horse track, with the last three digits of the handle being the hit. The game known as the 3-5-7 Old Way gets its first digit from the last digit of the total paid by the track on $2 bets to win, place and show for the day's first three races, its second digit from repeating the formula using the first five races and the last digit using the first seven races.
From a great story by Michael Brick in today's New York Times. It's full of good lines, to wit: "In New York, the police have been trying to shut down the numbers games for generations, at least when they were not helping to run them."