This is Just a Day-Dream About Money-Raising Possibilities of a Government Number Racket

The Evening Independent

October 1, 1937


In discussing the operators of the British football pools, the equivalent of the American numbers racket, I am day-dreaming about the money-raising possibilities of some similar scheme operated on a national scale and with exclusive rights by the United States government.

Dealing to a regular clientele of about 6,000,000, the British pools, in a season of nine months, handle from $150,000,000 to $200,000,000. Like the underworld promoters of our numbers racket, they find it profitable to take candy money bets. Their minimum is an English penny, or two cents of our money, and the numbers racketeers who do business in most of our big cities and in many smaller ones will accept a one cent bet. There have been many estimates of the amounts handled by the numbers racketeers, but none of them is worth considering because they all are founded on gossip and guess.

Nevertheless, the pools and the American rackets demonstrate that it is possible to handle with profit wagers so small as to seem not worth the bother. Perhaps the rackets should be eliminated from consideration in this respect, because they are very informal and keep no records. The British pools, however, are now conducted in a businesslike way, and they still invite two cent bets and apparently treat them as seriously as bets of a pound or more.

In this country the volume obviously would be much greater. An estimate of a billion a year as the total handle seems very conservative, but even on that volume a 10 per cent rakeoff for the operator, which would be the government, would yield $100,000,000 for the treasury. It might, and probably would be, considerably more. Moreover, if the government possessed an exclusive legal monopoly, the criminal nuisance of the numbers racket would diminish greatly, if it did not entirely vanish. The customers would feel confident of the government pool and the authority of the government would be invoked to suppress unlawful, wildcat competition. The racket is now a local police matter.

The more substantial British operators claim to conduct their polls with an operating expense of no more than 15 per cent of the gross, and a similar enterprise under government management here could be handled with the same efficiency and at no greater proportionate cost. Of course it might not be, considering the necessities of the relatives and friends of deserving Democrats, but if you don’t like my daydream please go away and dream one of your own. I do not wish to be waked up.

Instinctively the objection arises that the United States government must never become party to a gambling operation. As for that, many of our state governments already are in the business, taking a percentage of the pari-mutuel turnover at the race tracks, and the federal government, even now, through the income tax, not only accepts with pleasure and without compunction its legal percentage of gambling winnings, but even demands, under the law, a fair divvy of the profits of swindlers, racketeers and, if it comes to that, brothel keepers.

And, if a technical distinction having a faint color of morality will help the national conscience in this matter of the pool, the fact is that the government would be no party to the betting. The pool is a pari-mutuel device in which the customers bet against the probabilities and each other with the operator serving merely as broker. He takes down his cut for his profit, deducts that actual expenses of operation, and divides the rest of the money between those who have guessed right.

The winning odds in a squarely conducted mutual of this type are enormous, but the individual losses might not be harmful if bets of a nickel were acceptable. And 10 percent of a billion-dollar handle is $100,000,000 a year for the national kitty. Do I hear anyone sneering at a hundred millions a year even in these days of box-car figures?

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