Chicago Tribune

Gambling can be risky policy, no matter the name

Dawn Turner Trice
Dawn Turner Trice

May 10, 2004

Before the lottery, before riverboat gambling and before casinos as we know them, there was a game called policy that ruled Chicago's South Side in the Bronzeville neighborhood.
What was policy? I'll put it this way: Thirty years ago when commercials began appearing on television publicizing the brand new Illinois Lottery game, some older African-Americans sitting around watching their screens sucked their teeth and said, "Child, that ain't nothing new, that's policy."
According to Chicago native Nathan Thompson, author of "Kings: The True Story of Chicago's Policy Kings and Numbers Racketeers," policy was conceived around the late 1880s and was owned and operated for decades by black men called policy kings.
Policy players, lured by the possibility of hitting it big on a small bet, would pick a number combination, say 3-1-2, called a gig. A nickel wager could win you $5.

In the early days, winning numbers were pulled from the derby of Sam Young, policy's creator, as he stood on the corner of State and Madison Streets. Soon, Young moved his hustle south along State Street to a saloon.
By 1915, players could learn the winning numbers by visiting the family grocery store of a couple of Italian brothers who hooked up with Young, said Thompson.
By then, Young was pulling numbers from a cardboard box, and policy regulars would gather around that box, watching the results as if they were peering into a crystal ball that held their future.
Indeed, policy was responsible for its share of crime and lawlessness as the racket grew and more policy kings were getting in on the game and battling for turf. Black ministers deeply opposed policy, preaching against it from their pulpits. Still, the city didn't make much of an effort to get rid of it in the beginning.
"The city's opinion was that it was a little hustle in the black community," said Thompson. "That made it grow because nobody was paying attention. It was generating a lot of revenue throughout the Depression in Bronzeville."
Policy, in its heyday from about the 1920s to the 1950s, did some good for the winners. It put food on the tables of struggling families. Children were sent to college on policy money. It also provided jobs.
Thompson says proceeds from policy at times helped bankroll the Negro Baseball League and even the boxing career of Joe Louis.
But the house is always set up so there are more losers than winners, and gangsters vied for their share of the cut.

"A faction of Al Capone's Mafia went after the black guys on the South Side making all this money," said Thompson. "And that led to the killing of one of the big policy kings."
The other black kings decided to pull together, but that couldn't sustain them. By 1952, policy had been put on trial, more policy kings had been murdered or jailed and the white mob had moved in, said Thompson.

"That was the end of policy [as a black establishment] and the beginning of white-controlled policy," he said. "To say the Mafia was controlling the money meant they were also controlling the vote and the neighborhood where the money was derived."
I've always been fascinated by the story of policy. I've overheard bits and pieces of the history from my mother and grandmother who grew up in Bronzeville.
Now, I'm enjoying Thompson's tale, which fills in many of the holes.
I think of policy every time I hear politicians touting gambling as an economic cure-all. Chicago wants a casino. Any number of suburbs want casinos. Last week, the Wisconsin-based Ho-Chunk Nation announced plans to build a casino and entertainment complex on 432 acres of land in south suburban Lynwood. The plan already is caught up in political wrangling.
In general, politicians want the revenue from legalized gambling. But nobody wants to deal with the organized crime that remains prevalent. In all the touting, they often are mum about the impact it has on the poor and people with addictions.
Politicians trumpet the notion that communities will benefit. But the house always is the biggest winner.
The gambling pie is a difficult one to slice. That's because it can't be sliced so carefully that you get only the good and none of the bad.,1,5608468.column?coll=chi-printmetro-hed
Copyright 2004, Chicago Tribune