The numbers game: Cayman’s deadly addiction

Street lottery thrives despite robbery threat

Some have been locked up for it, others have been robbed, stabbed or even killed. Compulsive gamblers have lost their homes or families, but Cayman’s “number’s game” continues to thrive. 

For some it is an easy source of quick cash, for others it is a dangerous addiction. 

While gambling remains illegal in Cayman, the street lottery – also known as “cash pot” – is proving to be a daily source of entertainment for hundreds of residents, from all levels of society. 

Police say they have no record of exactly how much money is circulating in the underground lottery game. 

But according to sellers and players, who spoke with the Cayman Compass on condition of anonymity, jackpots can run to $20,000 or higher. 

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Detectives warn that numbers addicts exchanging large amounts of cash are playing a dangerous game of chance with their own safety – a fact brought into sharp focus by the recent conviction of Raziel Jeffers for his role in the killing of numbers man Marcos Duran. 

Jeffers was sentenced to 20 years in prison for organizing the armed robbery that led to the death of Mr. Duran in West Bay in 2010. 

While that was an extreme case, numbers sellers are putting themselves at increased risk, according to police. 

Detective Chief Inspector Malcolm Kay warns that regular sellers “are making themselves specific targets for criminals looking for easy cash.” 

He said police occasionally receive reports of crime linked to the numbers game. But detectives suspect robberies often go unreported because of the illegal nature of the numbers business. 

Other shootings or hold-ups, not directly linked by the victims to the sale of numbers, are often suspected of being connected to the lotto game. A shooting in the parking lot of A.L. Thompson’s store in June is one recent example. 

Sellers are often middle-men who pass on their takings, for a small cut, to the “big-man” who backs the pot.  

One numbers seller told the Compass that getting ripped off or giving a number on trust could get a person killed if they didn’t come up with the cash to pay the man at the top.  

It’s not just street hustlers who are hooked on the numbers game, according to regular players.  

Church people play it, housewives and retirees sell it, people in between jobs buy it, policemen, construction workers, nurses, lawyers and even some entrepreneurs involve it in their businesses.  

Thousands of dollars are put into the pot each day as “sellers” wait patiently on beaches, at bars, at home and on the streets for buyers to show up looking to place a $1 bet on a “five piece” or even $1,000, sometimes more, on a number. Some winners call big winnings “the rake.” 

From winnings, some say they have bought cars, paid school fees, purchased homes and other luxuries. 

Others are not so lucky. 

“Playing the numbers game is worse than crack if you get hooked on it,” said a former buyer who admitted to spending $450 on the cash pot and then losing another $3,000 trying to win it back. 

“Some people do not work, they sit around all day calculating what will play; some children go to school without lunch money because their mother or father spent the money on numbers. 

“The numbers game is creating a lot of poverty. A person will take their last $25 and play numbers with it.  

“Cayman needs its own lottery to cut out all this…it [the money from numbers] is leaving this island daily and nothing goes in government coffers. Christian people playing it and yet they are the ones trying to stop it …government needs a number.’ he said. 

Cayman’s illegal numbers games shadow legitimate lottery games in Honduras, Jamaica and Belize. The Jamaican “cash pot,” which plays five times a day, with the winning numbers posted online throughout the day, is the most popular. 

“Jamaica number mash(es) up the little business for those selling the Honduras number,” said one seller.  

The chances of winning the Jamaica “pot” or bank is much easier than the Honduras pot and people will bet on that quicker.  

In the Jamaica game, players bet on numbers 1 to 36 in each pot. Putting $1 on a number gives you the chance to win $27. The first pot drops at 8:30 a.m and the last pot at 8:30 p.m. 

Honduras numbers plays one time on Sunday. Players bet on a number from 1 to 100. Playing $6 will give you a chance of winning $400.  

Belize pot plays once a day, five days a week with numbers 1 to 100. Playing $1 will give you the chance of winning $100.  

“Wha number play” or “Wa drop” is the question asked by buyers until the number plays.  

Whether or not people play numbers, the curiosity of what plays is infectious. Even those who do not buy want to know what played. 

Players use any method they can think of to come up with their numbers – dreams, license plates, house numbers. If you are wearing a T-shirt with a number, that is the number to play.  

The more superstitious keep notebooks of numbers that they use with different triggers. If a helicopter flies over, they might play 15, a snake could be 13, catch some fish and they play the number of fish.  

One woman who buys numbers on and off and sells occasionally, said she makes $100 a night, or $500 per week. 

She believes legalizing the cash pots would allow government to take some of the profits to fix roads, schools, and help with Cayman’s infrastructure.  

“Instead, we have to play it off lotteries from other countries.” she said. 

Sometimes a seller will announce he is out of the game when he hears police are visiting the area or someone has been “thrown in the slammer,” but the next week he is back at it. One senior citizen said she was leaving the business because all the buyers had gotten “rolled over” and no one was buying.  

“What must I do, no one will give me work at this age and I need the little change. What I get from government can’t stretch very far,” she said. 


In this simulated illustration, ‘buyers’ place big bucks on numbers for the chance to win the jackpot. – Photo: Jewel Levy
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  1. The State of New Jersey established a state run lottery in the early 1970’s. In speaking with law enforcement officers from that time I learned that the illegal numbers games operated by ‘the mob’ disappeared, practically overnight along with the problems described above.
    The slope is slippery however. Governments become addicted to the ‘take’ and spending grows, requiring ever greater streams of income. Casino gambling was legalized in Atlantic City in 1978. Corruption flourished for decades, the City remains overwhelming depressed and now four casinos are closing due to competition from the all the new casinos popping up in the region. Problems remain.
    Whatever decision Cayman makes, please learn from history and the mistakes of the past.

  2. Buying and selling numbers in Cayman is like drinking beer or smoking weed. They will never go away no matter how much they are locked up.
    To deal with this problem lay on the shoulders of our representatives be or not to be.

  3. Maybe the government should consider legalising the lottery and create a government run lottery. Lotteries can be a huge source of income for governments by simply charging a duty/tax on all winnings (that’s what most countries do)

    Right now groups/organisations already take money in exchange for a chance to win a prize (bingo, raffles). These forms of lottery seem to be legal (or at the very least in a grey area).

    People can already buy lotteries online (legally) and winning can be transferred into a cayman islands bank account (legally – as it is a legitimate source of income) and thus become a part circulation.

  4. The English national lottery has since it started raised over 31 BILLION (Yes B not M) pounds for various charities and good causes.

    The one rule in gambling is the House always wins – CIG would do well to BE the house.

    A wise government would leverage Caymans tax free status and enable marketing to tourists on that basis – legally enshrine that status.

    A simple referendum would silence the critics (a percentage of whom may have a vested interest in the current illegal version?)

    If a positive ID was required to purchase ticket, it would ensure no underage AND could be used to protect the vulnerable – The technology is there to automatically limit spending by any given individual to say 30 dollars a week. The limit could be raised for individuals who applied and were able to demonstrate set levels of disposable income. Such electronic barriers could even prevent individuals with certain convictions from playing.