Bolita (Spanish for Little Ball), is a type of lottery which was popular in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries in Cuba and among Florida's working class Hispanic, Italian, and black population. In the basic bolita game, 100 small numbered balls are placed into a bag and mixed thoroughly, and bets are taken on which number will be drawn. Many variations on this theme were created. Bets were typically very small and sometimes sold well in advance, and the game could be rigged, by having extra balls of a given number or not including others at all. Other means of cheating included having certain balls filled with lead so they would sink to the bottom of the bag, or putting certain balls in ice beforehand so they would be cold and therefore easy for the selector to find by touch. Over time, Hispanics developed a name for each number in a system called La Charada or Las Charadas, creating a superstitious method for interpreting game outcomes or placing bets, many times in accordance with one's dreams the previous night.
Today Bolita is played in Puerto Rico and, in the United States, among Cuban and Puerto Rican groups.
Bolita was brought to Tampa, Florida, in the 1880s, and flourished in Ybor City's many Latin saloons. Though the game was illegal in Florida, thousands of dollars in bribes to politicians and law enforcement officials kept the game running out in the open. The alleged king of bolita in the 1920s was Tampa native, Charlie Wall. Later, Italian mafiosi Santo Trafficante, Sr. and Santo Trafficante, Jr. also figured prominently in the Florida bolita games.
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