Chicago’s Game of Chance and the Girls Who Kept Score

Untitled4In the opening chapter of A Girl Like You, young Henrietta Von Harmon works as a “26 Girl” at a corner tavern, Poor Pete’s.  Though virtually unknown in any other part of the country, 26 was once a very popular pastime across a variety of bars and cigar shops throughout Chicago.  Even the exclusive Palmer House and the Playboy Club had 26 tables, and at one point over 5,000 “26 girls” were employed throughout the city to stand prettily at a table and keep score, pushing drinks and often securing tips from the winners.  The basic idea behind the game was to roll 10 dice thirteen times in hopes of turning up a pre-designated number, such as sixes, at least 26 times or more.  The ante to get in a game was a quarter, the prize for rolling a 26 was usually a free drink on the house.

The game of 26 had a rocky existence spanning its birth in the 1910’s all the way through to the ‘50’s.  At different times, city ordinances were passed to attempt to ban 26 games as a form of gambling in connection with the sale of alcohol, but following the end of prohibition, police tended to look the other way, although they reserved the right to close down any bar or game they deemed a “public nuisance,” which the police do on a number of occasions to poor Mr. Hennessey, the owner of Poor Pete’s.

In the 1940’s, the authorities again attempted to rid the city of 26 games when the Illinois Liquor Control Commission tried to shut them down.  The Chicago City Corporation Counsel, however, protested, saying that the state did not have jurisdiction over local ordinances.

When World War II broke out, however, 26 girls came under attack for other reasons.  In 1945, one newspaper ran a photo of a dice girl with the following caption:  “War plants are crying for women workers as well as men. Yanks are gambling with death on battlefields. Yet 26-game dice still roll merrily.”

It was the beginning of the end, really.   A game of 26 could still be found into the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, but it was eventually outlawed in 1962 as it had become at times synonymous with the mob, with many 26 girls also doubling as prostitutes.

Showing 20 comments
  • Cathy Lyles
    Reply

    I have never heard of that before. Very interesting!

    • Michelle
      Reply

      Yes! Apparently it was very popular in Chicago.

  • Lara Z
    Reply

    I have never heard of this game either, and I have spent most of my adult life in Las Vegas. 🙂

    • Michelle
      Reply

      From the research I did, it seems like it was peculiar to the Chicago area. I’ve always been fascinated by regional games!

  • Yvonne Poole
    Reply

    My mother was a 26 girl in Chicago in the early 1950’s and definently NOT a prostitute! They just hired pretty dice girls to encourage the men to bet their money and buy more drinks. That is how my mother met my father.

    • Michelle
      Reply

      Wow, Yvonne!!! I would love to talk to you about your mother’s experience!

      • Marie Smith
        Reply

        My mom was also a 26 girl in Chicago In the late 30s. I wish I had asked her more. My mom was really lovely looking.

        • Michelle
          Reply

          Oh, wow, Marie! That is so neat!! Do you have any stories from her about her experience? Would love to hear them! Thanks for reading!!

  • katie tuten
    Reply

    I own the bar The Hideout and we had 26 girls at the Hideout. Yvonne where did your mother work? Katie Tuten

    • Michelle
      Reply

      Hi, Katie! I would love to meet you. I actually discovered The Hideout during my research about 26 girls for the series I write: The Henrietta and Inspector Howard series. After I read the history of The Hideout online, I decided I needed to see this place for myself and showed up one night all the way from Grayslake. Suffice it to say, I was utterly charmed. I then went on to discover Mark Bazer’s The Interview Show, which I was eventually a guest on! We should talk!

  • Linda
    Reply

    My father mentioned Dice Girls several times when he would reminisce about growing up on the North side of Chicago in the 40’s and 50’s. I also did some work back in the early 2000’s for a woman who talked about working as a Dice Girl in one of the bars my father frequented on Granville Ave. in Chicago.

    • Michelle
      Reply

      Wow, Linda! Thanks for sharing this! I love these types of stories. I lived near Granville in Rogers Park for about four years – very colorful area. Ha! Thanks for reading and reaching out!

  • Linda
    Reply

    Thanks! So great to find a little bit of information on the Dice Girls. Rogers Park is great! I grew up there in the 60’s and 70’s, and my dad lived there most of his life- from 1943, to 2018 when he passed. We have lots of family memories from that neighborhood.

    • Michelle
      Reply

      Wow! That is so neat, Linda! I love Rogers Park, too. So much history. I’m sure your dad had some great stories!

  • Tom
    Reply

    I grew up in Chicago and attended Northwestern University. There were bars along Howard St. as Evanston was “dry” then. There were 26 girls at different places from time to time. A simple examination of the odds tells you that winning will be difficult. But after a couple of beers you get up your nerve and give it a try. I think I got one “free” drink once. Of course the more outgoing the 26 girl’s personality was the better her business would be. The old days.

    • Michelle
      Reply

      Wow, Tom!! Thanks for this. Would love to hear more about your experience. I used to live very near Howard Street. Thanks for sharing! And yes…the old days. Sigh.

  • Stacy Stoldt
    Reply

    My Aunt Loretta was a 26 girl. Definitely about the dice and getting folks to buy drinks. She was a real knockout back in the day.

    • Michelle
      Reply

      Oh, wow, Stacy!!! This is so neat. She sounds like the main character of my series, Henrietta, who was based on a real woman. I met her in a nursing home, and she described herself as once upon a time, having a “man-stopping body and a personality to go with it.” Ha! She was apparently a real bombshell, just like your aunt. Thanks for sharing…!

  • Lynn
    Reply

    My grandma was a 26 girl and was always rumored to be a little…sketchy.

    • Michelle
      Reply

      So interesting, Lynn! When I was researching this book and what a 26 girl was, I found that, too. Not a respectable profession… LOL. I bet your grandma had great stories!

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