On Ching Chow, Lucky Numbers, and Gambling

“It’s not supposed to be funny, it’s a map, not a comic.” He pointed at some slashes that made up Ching-Chow’s shadow. “Somewhere in here is today’s numbers, all you got to is find ‘em.”  Skels: A Novel, Maggie Dubris

cc11Cartooning shorthand, or hidden clues for those "in the know"?

Henri Arnold, the cartoonist who drew Ching Chow and the daily Jumble word puzzle game for New York's Daily News and other papers, died on November 17th in Sarasota, Fla. He was 97.

Ching Chow sure was a weird one. I grew up just outside New York City and learned to read as a young boy via the Daily News, poring over the comics while sitting on my grandfather's knee in his Yonkers home. I also used to regularly play Arnold's Jumble with my grandmother. Ching Chow, I looked at and wondered just what the hell was it anyway? And why did it appear on the sports pages, rather than the comics section? Today, with Arnold's passing, I mostly wondered how in the world did such a dopey fortune-cookie-cutter of a strip featuring the “wise” pronouncements of the most stereotypical “Oriental” mystic imaginable manage to run for six decades?

Here's what I learned. For one thing, Ching Chow traces its roots back to the earliest days of comics, and Arnold was just the last of the cartoonists to write and draw it, manning the strip from 1976 to 1990 when it morphed into the less racially offensive (unless you're Irish) Meet Mr. Luckey, a virtually identical strip except that it now featured a life-size leprechaun. Arnold continued with Mr. Luckey until 2009, when it was officially retired.

For such a seemingly unimportant panel strip, Ching Chow touches on a number of cultural reference points—racism, mysticism, gambling, and, for Comics Journal readers at least, early comics history. The character Ching Chow first appeared in the papers when he joined the cast of Sidney Smith's The Gumps in 1927 and later became its own panel strip drawn by Gumps assistant Stanley Link, who also used it as a topper to his Sunday page, Tiny Tim.

While a whole book could focus on the stereotypical treatment of Asians in this and other comics, that's not my goal on this occasion. Instead, we'll focus on Ching Chow's "secret" legacy, as a de facto encrypted tip sheet for gamblers who played the horses and numbers games.

A bit of clarity on this is provided via author Nick Tosches’ 1988 novel Cut Numbers:

In his youth, he had watched his elders pour over "Ching Chow" in the Daily News. This little cartoon, which occupied a two-by-three-inch space every day near the racing charts, was believed by many of those elders to contain the key to the next winning Brooklyn number. By counting the buttons on Ching Chow’s mandarin jacket, by noting how many of his fingers were extended and in which direction they pointed, by adding and subtracting blades of grass or the drawn lines of this or that, by studying Ching Chow’s aphorism of the day—by these and assorted other hermeneutic methods, people sought to decipher the secret information they believed was hidden there daily. In retrospect, it was always there: If 321 was the winning Brooklyn number, a look back at that morning’s "Ching Chow" surely would reveal three buttons, two pointing fingers, and a lone bird flying overhead. If the number was 749, a look back—discounting, of course, the buttons, fingers and bird—would reveal seven pebbles, four sunrays, and nine words in the aphorism. It was widely held that this secret information was conveyed to the artist by an unknown but actual Chinaman who had grown fabulously wealth from his occult knowledge of numbers and who now, in his old age, wished to impart hat knowledge in his own inscrutable way.

A 1995 New York Magazine article on the history of the Daily News further touched on the technique: "'When I was growing up in Red Hook, my mother and her friends would line up every night for the Night Owl edition of the News and the Mirror, all these ladies waiting there in housedresses and curlers,' said Jerry Nachman, former New York Post editor. 'And at first I never understood why they were grabbing the paper and reading it from the back. But it turned out they were getting the number.' The next day’s number was hidden in the track handle for Aqueduct, and there were variations like the comic strip 'Ching Chow,' from which readers would divine horse-racing tips by counting clouds, buttons, and folds in the sleeves.”

And as can been seen in the clip below, from the early '70s PBS TV program The Great American Dream Machine (now out as a box set), a careful read of the daily panel could unearth all kinds of secret information. But you had to know what to look for.

So, did Arnold actually have any insider information that he was knowingly passing on to his enlightened readers? In a 1978 issue of the Village Voice, Noe Goldwasser spoke to Arnold about the strip’s alleged betting prowess: “He listened carefully as I read him a passage from Cheng Chou’s Weekly Pick [a Lucky Numbers betting booklet aimed at informing readers about the strip’s secrets]: ‘Direction: Look in the daily newspaper and see what the Chinaman is doing and match his actions with charts below. Bending is number 804 this week; Funny Face is 762; Hands on Hips is 666; and Not Alone is 219.’


“’That’s a real killer, isn’t it?’ Arnold said. ‘You know, a few years ago a guy who said he worked at the Jamaica track came up to the office and asked me for some advanced proofs. He said, ‘It took me a year to crack your code. Once I got it, I made 14 grand.’ ‘I wish you’d let me in on it,’ I said. ‘Maybe I could make some change.’ He says, ‘I’ll tell you what. Let’s look at today’s paper.’ That day I had drawn a needle-in-a-haystack situation. Ching Chow was holding a needle straight up. That apparently meant something. From the needle, I had five little radiation lines, and that meant something—fifth horse, third race, something like that. We looked it up in the Racing Form and it turned out to be a horse called Pore Jim. He called me back later from the track—the horse came in... Maybe I do have a sixth sense.'"

Maybe. Or maybe some people just see what they want to see. Even if it's in a dopey comic strip. Either way, the people behind Ching Chow knew what they were on to, and you can be sure that when its title was changed to Meet Mr. Luckey, it was no accident.

"Some call it Numerology, some call it Numberology, but no matter what you call it, we know that since ancient times, Wise Men have long made a study of Numbers and and their relationship to Luck. Lucky Number is the name of a very old, and very popular, formula employed in situations by people who like to turn their Dreams into Lucky Numbers for playing at Games of Chance."-- The Lucky Mojo Curio Co. catalogue.

The Tradition of Sports Betting in Comics

Jeff Overturf Mutt & Jeff003

So, then was Ching Chow really a betting comic?  If so, it wasn't the first.

The connection between sports betting and the funny pages dates back to the time before there even were "funny pages" in U.S. newspapers. Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff,  often (perhaps incorrectly) identified as the very first daily sequential panel "comic strip," first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1907 as A. Mutt.  Fisher, then an illustrator for the Chronicle's sports pages, set the early run of the strip at horse tracks and it featured the adventures of a gambling-obsessed character named Augustus Mutt (his pal, Jeff, would appear a few months later).

"Often, Fisher would use the names of real horses in his story lines; when Mutt bet on actual horses, his finances would rise or fall, depending on the fortunes of the real-world races he participated in," wrote Nathan Vernon Madison in Comics Through Time. "Readers began to count on Mutt's choices, and almost as many copies [of the Chronicle] were sold for their 'insider tips' as they were for the strip's humor."

In 1903, several years before Mutt's first appearance, King Features Syndicate founder Moses Koenigsberg of the Chicago American sought to “get a day-to-day grip on his sports page readers, to provide something to excite them into following the sports pages continuously," according to Coulton Waugh’s 1947 book The Comics.  "Having decided on a continuing comic, he narrowed the theme to horse-racing, defined the plot wherein an aggressive boaster without backing gets into funny snarls in his efforts to raise bet money, and selected the paper’s cartoonist, Clare Briggs, to visualize the idea. He picked out one of Briggs’ sketches of a thin-necked, pop-eyed fellow, with slack chin and heavy moustache who was dressed in loud high-society clothes, and christened him 'A. Piker Clerk.'”

Piker Clerk

A. Piker's Clerk, above, which only ran briefly because publisher William Randolph Hearst reportedly considered it “vulgar,” chronicled the success and failure of Mr. Piker’s daily bets on Chicago horse races, as well as his predictions for the next day’s competitions. Early work by comics legends George Herriman, Tad Dorgan, and Rube Goldberg ran on the sports pages, and Billy DeBeck's Barney Google started out as a horse racing strip in 1919 and rose to even greater popularity with the introduction of Barney's race horse Spark Plug a few years later.

Introduced in 1924 by former Mutt and Jeff assistant Ken Kling, Joe & Asbestos was another horse track comic favored by handicappers.  In a 1970 obit for Kling, the Associated Press said Joe & Asbestos was "followed avidly by horseplayers for nearly 40 years... The cartoon would contain a hidden clue to the identity of a horse running that day who was regarded highly by Kling. Kling was reputed to be one of the nation's leading handicappers...Although he long insisted 'I don't know a thing about horses,' thousands of racing fans bet the way 'Joe and Asbestos' did. Kling estimated once that $3-million was placed on the horses he picked each day."

Ken Kling's not so "hidden" Lucky Numbers.

And from 1937 to 1942, the San Francisco Examiner ran Hank Jackson's horse track tip strip Monk Sez, as seen below:


Other betting strips included the Chicago Defender's Old Dan the Number Man, which announced the daily winning numbers, and Jay Jackson's Bungleton Green, which, as long-time comics figure and folk magic historian Cat Yronwode explains, depicted a "strange world where boxed numbers appeared on random surfaces. These numbers were set forth without comment, for the benefit of policy and lottery players who happened to read the strip and hoped to catch a hit. Thousands of people bought the Chicago Defender to check the weekly 'Bungleton Green' series for winning combinations.”


Bungleton-4Credit for the Bungleton Green strips: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division/Proquest Historical Black Newspapers

Like Hirschfeld's "NINAs," these numbers were sneaked into the strip each day. They were just a bit more obvious.

Sports betting dates back to at least the Ancient Greeks and horse betting has probably been around since the beginning of horses. Today it's estimated that more than $380 billion is wagered illegally through offshore online betting houses, office pools, and neighborhood bookmakers. According to this site, "The first racetrack was established in the United States in 1665 and the American Stud Book was put in place in 1868. By 1894 the American Jockey Club was set up. In the early 1900s bookmaking was banned, but pari-mutuel betting saved horse racing in 1908." The Numbers Game, or Policy Racket, is an illegal lottery played mostly in poor neighborhoods in the US where a bettor attempts to pick three digits to match those that will be randomly drawn the following day from sources such the Stock Exchange or race track daily purses.

Three numbers.

It was the search for those elusive three number that turned some gamblers to the comic strips. Perhaps there were those who found significance in Ernie Bushmiller's mysterious "three rocks," or who counted the hairs on Dagwood's head. Anything is possible. And many of the early cartoonists were men who knew their way around a race track or gambling den.

"These guys lived and breathed sports and betting," said comics historian and TCJ columnist Paul Tumey of the early cartoonists.  "They went to prize fights, horse races, ball games,and played pool, golf, and poker for money and entertainment. Given that, it only seems natural that some comic strips would be based on gambling tips."

Indeed, Tumey, the co-editor and primary writer of The Art of Rube Goldberg: (A) Inventive (B) Cartoon (C) Genius (Abrams, 2013) pointed toward a little known incident from 1908 when Rube Goldberg was arrested for working as a time keeper for a boxing match that had gotten out of hand. The incident occurred shortly after Goldberg arrived in New York via California, where he had been working as a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Bulletin.


But enough about numbers.  Lets get back to Henri Arnold.  This is, after all, his obituary.

Even the Jumble Spoke to Some

Arnold, whose work was syndicated in hundreds of other newspapers internationally and across the country, grew up on a farm in Connecticut and began drawing at an early age, according to his obit in the Daily News.

"After serving in the Army during World War II, Arnold enrolled at Cooper Union, where he studied art using the G.I. Bill.

"He soon joined the cartoon staff of the News as an assistant on Prince Valiant and Terry and the Pirates.  From 1960 to 2008, an astonishing run of 48 years, Arnold drew and later also made up the puns for more than 17,000 different puzzles for the Jumble: That Scrambled Word Game."

Arnold, who said he turned in his strips a month in advance of publication, repeatedly denied he had any insider information on horse races or number betting.

"When they picked up the paper, they assumed it was done the day before," Arnold told the Daily News in 2009. "I never, never, never did anything deliberately. If you wanted to, you could interpret it any way you wanted."

Untitled-2Arnold's bio from the National Cartoonist Society.

Even the Jumble was viewed as a tip sheet by some.

"My cleaning lady asks me how many circles are going to be in the Jumble today," Arnold told the Village Voice. "They count the circles instead of doing the puzzle. The funny thing is, I do all the panels for a given week in one or two days. I don’t consciously do anything connected with games of chance, yet I’m the source...It seems to me I ought to be getting a percentage."

But despite Arnold's denials, the myth of Ching Chow among gamblers was strong. As one numbers player said to the Village Voice in that 1978 article, "Why do you think Ching Chow has been in the newspaper all these years?

"Because it's funny? Hah, hah."