Green’s Dictionary of Slang

numbers, the n.

[the SE numbers upon which one bets]

1. (US gambling) a popular form of street gambling called Policy, which involves predicting a combination of the winning numbers (between 000 and 999) at a racetrack, esp. widespread in US black community.

[[US]Nat. Police Gaz. (NY) 8 Nov. 91/3: Arrest of Policy Players [...] A the time of the arrest [...] the negro was in his shop purchasing a number].
[[US] J.D. McCabe Secrets of the Great City 514: A man might play three numbers every day for a year, and not have the satisfaction of seeing all three come out at one time on the drawing.].
[US]Nat. Police Gaz. (NY) 15 Nov. 14/4: All the darkies dream numbers, but not with equal success.
[US]Ade Artie (1963) 170: She tell Belle ’at she heah I like gin an’ roll ’e bones an’ play numbers [DA].
[US]Van Vechten Nigger Heaven 4: Nummer come out. Drew sixty-seven bucks. [Ibid.] 235: Everybody plays Numbers, and yet it is just a lottery and consequently against the law.
[US]H. Asbury Sucker’s Progress 88: For more than a hundred years Policy was the favorite game of the masses, and is still the most widespread method of gambling in the United States, although it is better known nowadays as Numbers.
[US]I. Wolfert Tucker’s People (1944) 10: It was a popular game in Harlem, where it was called ‘the numbers’.
[US]B. Schulberg On the Waterfront (1964) 59: We got the numbers and the horses going, and some other stuff.
[US]C. Himes Rage in Harlem (1969) 21: He put ninety dollars on numbers in the night house.
[US]M. Baker Nam (1982) 206: I was out on the street running numbers, selling some smoke, some coke. I had to survive.
[US]Pileggi & Scorsese Goodfellas [film script] 23: It was an even bigger money-maker than numbers.
[US]G. Tate Midnight Lightning 97: My uncle was a freakin’ gangster who worked for Nicky Barnes’s numbers-running and dope operation in Harlem.
[US]N. McCall Them (2008) 37: He used variations of [...] 1023, for good luck when he played the numbers.
[US]Codella and Bennett Alphaville (2011) 359: Running numbers and taking bets (what the old-timers called ‘policy’).

2. attrib. use of sense 1.

[US]C. Himes Pinktoes (1989) 148: Bessie Shirley told the Theresa Hotel bellhop to tell the numbers writer [...] she figured this might be the day to get down on 409.
[US]S.L. Hills Tragic Magic 75: We used to stick up numbers joints [...] that’s where the money was.
[US]G.V. Higgins At End of Day (2001) 48: Didn’t have to keep the numbers bankroll in the shop anymore — someone hit the number, Brian’s runner brought the payoff around.
[US]C. Goffard Snitch Jacket 219: Numbers guys, shylocks, professional arm-breakers.
[US]G. Pelecanos (con. 1972) What It Was 127: Red Jones [who] showed his heater, and took off numbers kingpin Sylvester Ward.

In compounds

numbers-banker (n.) (also numbers-baron, ...king, ...man)

one who runs a numbers lottery.

[US]J.W. Johnson Black Manhattan 217: On February 2, 1929 a play was put on at the Appollo Theatre [...] called Harlem and it was a portrayal of life in a Harlem railroad flat, of rent parties, of the ‘sweetback,’ of the ‘hot stuff man,’ of the ‘number king’ and the number racket.
[US](con. late 1920s) L. Hughes Little Ham Act I: You done got yourself all tied up with that numbers baron.
[US]Pittsburgh Courier (PA) 16 Sept. 11/1: Lulu Lewis [...] is playing the town with that young ‘number’ banker .
[US] ‘Kitty Barrett’ in D. Wepman et al. Life (1976) 53: All the pimps and numbers men were digging the scene.
[US]C. Himes Crazy Kill 65: He and Dulcy, along with other well-heeled Harlem pimps, madams and numbers bankers, lived on the sixth floor of the flashy [...] apartment house.
[US] ‘Konky Mohair’ in D. Wepman et al. Life (1976) 105: And a big numbers banker, name of Dirty-Money Tanker, / Showed with a whole year’s play.
[US]J. Hersey Algiers Motel Incident 94: Clean-up basically deals with blind pigs and prostitutes and numbers men.
numbers house (n.)

the office where the numbers ‘racket’ is run.

[US]D. Goines Inner City Hoodlum 41: Duke silently calculated...what numbers house had been involved.
numbers racket (n.)

laying odds and betting on numbers.

[US]Mezzrow & Wolfe Really the Blues 182: The profits they raked in from the big nightclubs and speakeasies and from the numbers racket.
[US]‘Iceberg Slim’ Pimp 39: He was a ‘sharpy’ from a number-racket family in New York.
[US]J. Wambaugh Choirboys (1976) 53: The numbers racket [...] had been a dismal failure in western America.
[US]Hip-Hop Connection Dec. 4: Johnson (Fishburne) returns to...find that Dutch Schultz (Roth) is muscling in on his lucrative numbers racket.
numbers runner (n.)

one who takes the money from individual bettors and who delivers any payouts.

R. Ellison in Dundes Mother Wit (1973) 63/1: As a numbers runner he is a bringer of manna and a worker of miracles .
[US]B. Hamper Rivethead (1992) 162: Several of us had money ridin’ with Frankie, our in-plant numbers runner.

In phrases

hit the number (v.) (also hit the numbers)

1. to make a successful bet on the numbers game.

[US](con. 1940s) Malcolm X Autobiog. (1968) 144: I nearly quit because I had hit the numbers for ten cents.
[US]P. Thomas Down These Mean Streets (1970) 152: Poppa ony called us kids ‘honey’ when he was feeling something big, like hitting the numbers or getting a raise.
[US]N. Pileggi Wiseguy (2001) 64: She also knew he had hit the number for a couple of thousand dollars.

2. to be successful, in a non-gambling context.

[US]Blanche Calloway ‘Catch On’ [lyrics] I can shake my shimmy and do the rhumba, / But I can’t hit the number!
[US]N. Heard Howard Street 68: Boy, you sure hit the number tonight, baby.
[US]N. Heard House of Slammers 43: Lordy! [...] Chile, that sho-nuff hit the number!