Posted by JimMorrison
Jul 14, 2011


I recently did nearly 200 days in jail (40 days in county in Las Vegas and 155 days in county in Phoenix). The Wizard kindly asked me to write about my gambling experiences while locked up, so here’s my experience; I hope you guys enjoy.

You might assume gambling is done for cigarettes as you have seen in movies and such, but that is no longer the case. Cigarettes aren't sold in most jails now, so what you gamble for is an “item.” Items are what you order from store (off the commissary list). Typically once a week you can order store -- it’s mainly just junk food sold to inmates at an inflated price. In order to order store, people on the outside put money on your books by either depositing online with a credit card (incurring a $10 fee), putting it on at a kiosk in jail (which also charges a $10 fee), or going to the window directly to add it to someone's books (no fee). The money you came to jail with would also be added to your books. In Las Vegas, you could spend $50 per order max, but they had store twice a week. In Phoenix, store was once a week and you could spend $120 max.

In county in Las Vegas, an item was worth 50 cents (for example, soup or oatmeal were common items). In county in Phoenix, an item was worth 75 cents (honeybuns and pretzels were common). The item is the basis of the whole economy in jail. Gambling is the most prevalent area where items exchange hands, but there are numerous other services you can spend items on. Some of the other stuff you could spend items on from other inmates were hooch, drugs people snuck in, psych meds the nurse would dish out that will get you high or put you to sleep, envelopes with artwork on the front to mail to people on the outside, flowers made out of toilet paper and colored with colored pencils, rings and necklaces made out of elastic from boxers and threads from thermals, beanies made from socks or thermals, special orthopedic sneakers inmates for inmates with flat feet, and other medical stuff like prescription dandruff shampoo. Inmates would also run their own stores. How a store worked is the store would lend you items this week for more items back next week. Reasons some inmates would do this is that they just came to jail and haven’t had a chance to order any store yet, they ran out of items they ordered from the previous week (typically from eating them or losing them gambling), or their people on the outside failed to get down to the jail in time the previous week to add money to their books. Most stores ran what is called a “2 for 3.” The store would give you two items this week and you would give them three items in return the following week. I started running “3 for 4s” to get a piece of this business; I offered the inmates a better deal than they could get elsewhere. I would only risk six items on any new inmate until I knew I could trust him to pay back. I would let some inmates go 30 items deep once a relationship was established. You couldn’t risk too much on any individual inmate, just in case they got rolled up and transferred to another pod.

Gambling is done either “on the wood” or “from store to store”. On the wood means whatever you are gambling for you bring those items to the table. If you win or lose, the payment is on the spot. From store to store means you build a tab playing against other inmates, and come next store date, you are paid or pay out. I recommend only playing on the wood. When you do store to store, you might not always get paid, depending on who you were playing against, and it can escalate to worse problems. In jail/prison, inmates are broken up by race into gangs. Out west, the five biggest gangs are the woods (whiteboys), the kinfolk (blacks), the Mexicans (Mexican Americans), the paisas (Mexicans from Mexico), and the chiefs (Native Americans). Asians and Arabs run with the blacks. The woods, Mexicans, and chiefs all run together. Their enemies are the kinfolk and paisas. Now in regards to store to store, if you're a wood, you will always get paid by a Mexican or a chief so as to keep good relations with each other. If the person you won items off doesn’t have the items to cover his debt, his people will cover the debt for him and bar him from gambling store to store in the future or otherwise punish him. Your own people will probably want a break if you are up a bunch of items against one of them, so you might not get paid the full amount. Your enemies will try to stiff you plain and simple by coming up with some reason to justify why they are not paying you. When that happens, you are forced to go into a cell and duke it out with them so as to not make your own people look weak. There is a saying, “When hands are laid, the debt is paid.” So not only might you be stiffed, you might get your ass kicked too. However, poker and blackjack tables were always run store to store, and I’ll get into that later.

You can order playing cards from the store, both poker cards and pinochle cards. In each pod (the area where your cell and dayroom are located), they also had sets of dominoes and chess/ backgammon boards for the inmates to share. Dice were prohibited and were classified as gambling paraphernalia. If you were caught with any, they could send you to the hole for a period of time. This was rarely ever enforced, however. If you wanted to play games with dice, you had to make your own. To make dice, you used soap, toothpaste, and toilet paper and formed the cubes using an area with 3 corners. In Vegas, I used the door frame to make dice. In Phoenix, I used a spot under the desk in my cell. In Vegas, you could use Kool-Aid and felt pens for coloring. In Phoenix, all you had were colored pencils. The gambling games I encountered in jail were poker, dominoes, chess, backgammon, pinochle, gin, spades, blackjack and craps.

Chess and backgammon were played standard. One thing I noticed about chess in Phoenix is almost all the kinfolk had the same opening move. They would all move the pawn in front of the knight one space forward to get their bishop controlling the diagonal in the empty space. Inmates would also play pinochle, but I never got into it. All I can tell you is they typically played Cutthroat style, if you are familiar with the game.

Gin was a really simplified version. There was no knocking. When you had Gin (two three card melds and one four card meld), you would turn your hand over and get points for whatever was left in your opponents hand and not part of his melds. Games were typically played to 100 points. Aces were worth one point and face cards were worth 10 points.

Spades is played with a partner. When I was in Phoenix, spades was played with two jokers in the deck. They counted as spades. The big joker was the highest trump while the little joker was the next highest trump. They would remove the 2h and 2d from the deck in order to add the two jokers. So there ended up being 14 spades, 13 clubs, 12 hearts, and 12 diamonds in the deck. If you get set on the first hand, you automatically lose. If you get doubleset (getting set twice in a row), you lose. If you get set three times throughout the match, you automatically lose.

Dominoes was played to three houses. Each house is worth 50 points for 150 points total. You need to first score 10 points to get on board. You can't score on 5 points until you first get on board. If you domino but have not yet scored 10 points, you do not earn any points for the pips left in your opponent’s hand. You still get to act first on the next hand, since you got the domino, though. Play begins with big 6 (double 6) having to be played if either player has it. If no player is dealt big 6, then it goes down to big 5, then down to big 4, and so forth. If neither player has any doubles, it goes down to 5/6, then 4/6, and so forth until someone can play a domino. If the board is locked up, meaning no one can play any more pieces, the player with less pips left in his hand scores points for how many pips his opponent has left in his hand. Since it was locked up and no one scored a domino, play resumes on the next hand to whomever has big 6. If one player starts the hand with 4 doubles in his hand, he can reveal his hand and you shuffle the dominoes and each get dealt a new hand. You can also win double the stakes you’re playing for by skunking or peter-rolling your opponent. That’s when you score 75 points before your opponent scores any points or score 150 points before your opponent scores 75. If you get to 75 points before your opponent scores any points, the game ends immediately and you win double the stakes.

Blackjack was played with six decks. There would be a dealer dealing cards and a guy shuffling cards. When the shuffler collected enough cards, he would shuffle them and add them to the bottom of the “shoe.” Chips came in denominations of $1 and $5. They were made of toilet paper and soap. The $1 chips were blueish (colored with lead pencil shavings and shampoo), and the $5 chips were red (colored with crystal light mix). The minimum bet was $1 and the maximum bet was $8. The rules were dealer stands on 17, double on any two cards, double after split allowed, resplitting aces allowed, no limit on the amount of hands you could split to, you only get one card per ace. An unusual rule was that if the dealer had a five-card hand, he would stand regardless of the total. Another unusual rule was that on odd-numbered bets blackjacks were paid 1 to 1 on your first blackjack and then 2 to 1 on your next blackjack, alternating back and forth. So optimal strategy would be to bet the $1 when you are getting paid only 1 to 1 on your blackjack and $7 when you are getting paid 2 to 1.

Poker was run on the wood in Vegas and store to store in Phoenix. They kept a tab on a sheet of paper. Each item gets you a clip of either 30 or 40 chips. Chips were made from used decks of cards ripped in half and bound together with elastic from boxers. When you bought a clip, they would put you as -1 on their tab. Clips had to constantly be exchanged with other players since there weren’t enough chips at the table. When you gave a clip to another player, they would add +1 to your tab and -1 to the tab of the player you gave it to. Who ran the poker table alternated from week to week, so the woods might run it one week, the kinfolk the next, and the Mexicans the next. How they collected the rake was each hand everyone anted two chips and the house collected that as the rake. That's a very steep rake when you only get 30 or 40 chips a clip. There was no rake in Vegas and no particular race ran the table either – just whoever wanted to play. Games were played dealer’s choice both places, and the players themselves had to deal by passing the deal on each hand. In both jails, the most common games called were Omaha variants. In Phoenix, we played five-card Omaha: you get dealt five cards but only two play out of your hand. In another Omaha variant, called Colorado, you were dealt five cards and must use three cards from your hand and two cards from the board. The most common game called in Vegas was also an Omaha variant named Two Must Fit. It's kind of like five-card Omaha, except two cards from your hand must fit the board. So lets say you had AQ59T and the board was AA247. Your hand doesn’t qualify to win the pot since only your A fits the board. If you had AQQ59 on AA247, your hand would qualify and you’d have aces and queens.

As for sports betting, I ran football parlays while in Phoenix. The only other sports betting I encountered was someone in the pod running parlays with some ridiculous payouts such as paying 4:1 on a four team parlay and 25:1 on an eight team parlay. A friend bought me a newspaper subscription so I'd get the lines out of the sports section. ESPN was usually on the TV, so people could check scores as the games were going on. The only other station they allowed us to watch was the Food Network. I would do four team parlays paying out 30 for 3 (true odds are 48 for 3). So I’d earn a little over an item per parlay in expected value. In prison, I was told by other inmates that parlays are usually done where ties lose. I didn’t want to create any arguments or upset anyone if a tie came up, so I moved whole numbers up or down half a point to avoid the issue of any ties coming up. I’d also give out two free football squares for Monday night games where each quarter you could win an item if your square came in. I also ran a craps game. For an item, you’d get a clip of 30 chips. I drew a layout on the floor using soap and put a playing card (4,5,6,8,9,T) in each individual square for the place bets. You could bet on the passline too. Whatever came up as the point, I would turn the playing card sideways in the square. I paid out place bets as if it was a $3 table: 5:3 on 4 and T, 4:3 on 5 and 9, and 3:3 on 6 and 8. I’d handle the bets by paying out winning wagers and collecting losing wagers while my cellmate watched the dice and the players to make sure they didn’t try anything shady. Another inmate behind me would form 30-chip clips out of the losing wagers I handed him.

Jail wasn’t the best place to be, but if you enjoy gambling, you would at least have a way to keep busy. I wouldn’t say jail was necessarily fun, but it was definitely an interesting experience, and I tried to make the most of it.


ukaserex May 25, 2016

Nice article. Takes me back to when I did a tour of the nation's jails. It's a long story - one I'm writing about, so I won't go into details, but I have one anecdote to share.

In Louisiana, they have private companies that run some of the prisons. I had a sentence of two years, but with La. being a "2 for 1" state, I'd only have to do 1 year. While I was there, a game called Bourré (Boo-Ray). Rules can be found on Wikipedia.

Because of the first syllable, people would boast, predict, talk smack - "I'm going to Boo you!". A lot of noise. One fellow was particularly obnoxious and loud. I made the mistake of saying, "Boo you, too!" and left the game down about 4 items.

He then proceeded to run to his bunk, put his lock in a sock and hit me in the back of my head when I had already forgotten about the game and was just walking towards the tv. 3 stitches in the back of my head.

Nothing quite so organized as what's in the article. All items were "on the wood", controlled by the banker - a player who assumed responsibility for everyone getting paid, and he would take a cut for his troubles. Essentially, older decks of cards were torn into 1/8's and used as pennies. Each item that cost 50 cents would get you 40 chips, while the banker kept 10 chips. So, with a max of 10 players, the banker had at least 100 chips to play with. A bit of a racket, but getting smacked upside the head aside, it was a fun game and I was able to pass a lot of time without having to dwell on the set of circumstances I was in.

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