There will be no May 6 referendum on Washington's real numbers game -- the illegal one. The players already have approved it by betting an estimated $300 million a year.

Street numbers, as the game is known, has been an institution in Washington for decades. Its colorful traditions and practical economic benefits have allowed the game to survive -- and even thrive -- despite the law and despite the competition from Maryland's seven-year-old legal lotteries.

In the street game, players can wager on credit, and conveniently place bets at the front door of their homes, in office corridors or even while under a hair dryer at the neighborhood beauty salon. Numbers can be played for as little as a dime, with payoff odds at 600 to 1. And most importantly, winnings are not taxed.

The game has a history of cummunity acceptance spiced with such legendary philanthropic numbers bankers as Roger (Whitetop) Simkins and William (Snags) Lewis, who are said to have paid heating bills and bought Christmas presents for the poor, and contributed to churches and charities during the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

The city-run legal numbers game that voters will be asked to approve May 6 will offer more dependable payoffs and the blessing of the law. But District police, drawing on the experiences of other cities, say the illegal numbers business will continue.

"It will just give the streets another avenue of betting," said Sgt. Bernard Emmert of the D.C. police gambling squad.

Soon after the Maryland lottery launched its daily drawings, for example, inventive D.C. numbers operators began a second illegal daily game, choosing winners on the basis of the Maryland number. The result was an increase of nearly 50 percent in illegal betting, D.C. police said.

The same thing happened in Baltimore. It hasn't reduced the illegal numbers game in Maryland. It just gives it another number to work with," said Capt. Donald Einolf of the Baltimore Police Department's vice control office.

Some supporters of the D.C. referendum, which also would legalize bingo, raffles, social gambling and pari-mutuel wagering on dog racing and jai alai, contend that legalization of gambling will allow the financially troubled city government to capture dollars now wagered illegally. Some bettors undoubtedly will switch to new numbers. Others say privately they will not.

"I'll still play the street numbers," said an elderly housewife in Southeast Washington who has been betting for 32 years. "It's just more fun than the lottery."

A clerk at police headquarters, who places her bets through a boyfriend, said the legal game is too "unpredictable" for her. "The thing about the street number is you can put a little amount of money in and get something out of it," she said. A 10-cent direct hit in street numbers pays $60.

The illegal game, known simply as "the numbers" when it was the only game around, is in many respects the forefather of the May 6 referendum, which many city politicians expect to be approved because of the strong -- though sometimes low-keyed -- support for it among a broad cross section of city residents.

A thriving enterprise that D.C. police estimate takes in $300 million a year in bets -- 91 percent as much as the Maryland State Lottery -- the illegal game symbolizes and irrepressible urge to gamble on hitting it big.

Governments in 14 states have sought to capitalize on that feeling by starting their own legitimate numbers games. As a result, betting is even more widespread.

"This numbers playing has become a way of life," said the Rev. Raymond R. Robinson, pastor of the Israel Baptist Church in Northeast Washington, and chairman of the Committee of 100 Ministers.

In Washington, numbers writers are everywhere, police say -- maids and doormen in hotels, janitors in office buildings, college professors, cab drivers, barbers and couriers. A friendly handshake with a parking lot attendant could actually be the passing of a bet. Police say some players place their bets when paying for breakfast at their favorite restaurant.

Big wins at numbers have financed college educations, new cars, home purchases and family vacations. In February, police raided a house in connection with their investigation of a $10 million-a-year numbers operation. The house was on Tulip Street NW, in the showy middle-class Platinum Coast neighborhood off upper 16th Street.

One numbers writer, a veteran of 40 years on the street who aksed not to be named, said he had watched black maids turn nickel dreams into Cadillac cars and watched white professors hustle digits behind the walls of major universities in the city.

"The idea that white people don't play numbers is the biggest myth there is," he said with a chuckle.

Lt. Robert Torres of the D.C. police gambling squad said, "Any ethnic group, any financial group plays numbers."

In some ways, the illegal numbers game is played like its legal counterpart in Maryland. Players bet by selecting a three-digit number. The number can be played "straight" (in its regular order), usually for a 600-to-1 payoff. Of it can be played in various inverted combinations, which pay at lower odds if any one of them hits.

The daily number is derived though a somewhat complex method of adding up the win-place-show payoffs from three pairs of horse races at a track selected by numbers operators. The track changes from time to time. The illegal numbers game currently is using the results of races at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

The first digit is determined by adding the amount paid out in the fourth and fifth races and choosing the third figure from the right. By doing the same for the sixth and seventh races, and for the eight and ninth, the final two digits are determined.

On Monday, the payoff total from the fourth race was $17.20 and the fifth, $33.00. The first digit of the illegal number was 0 (7 plus 3). The sixth race total was $31.60 and the seventh, $31.00. The eighth race payout came to $36.20, and the ninth was $63.60.

The daily number of Monday was 029.

Placing bets and finding out the daily number is often a secretive process, with coded language that has remained standard for years, according to several longtime or retired numbers runners.

Numbers writers earn from 25 to 35 percent of the amount of bets they book each day. If one of their players hits, a 10 percent cut for the writer is standard. Some former numbers players have carried that practice into the Maryland game.

"A lot of people would hit and they'd give you $5 or $10. They say, 'You take it or you'll break my luck,'" said Mary Jo Winston, a Maryland lottery ticket agent at the Drug Fair store on Annapolis Road in Bladensburg.

Some writers, those who work full time and expand their clientele like a new doctor in search of patients, can earn as much as $1,000 a week, according to one writer who says he handles $600 in bets each day.

Other writers consider it a parttime job that can often be performed on their regular job. Many numbers writers are elderly people supplementing retirement incomes.

Like many of the bets placed throughout the day, reports of the daily number often are made by telephone, using such phrases as "What's on first?" (What is the first digit?) "What's on second?" and "How much does the pig weigh?" (What is the full three-digit number?).

Payoffs aare made in cash, either that evening or the next day, with straight hits paying at 600-to-1 odds and "combinated" hits paying less.

For all the romanticized folklore about hits that buy poor people's dreams, police and bettors describe the illegal number game as a paradox of good and evil.

Bankers don't always pay off, and sometimes they "cut," or reduce the payoffs on heavily played numbers. Many writers carry multicolored "cut cards listing the numbers on which odds of no more than 400 to 1, for example, will be paid.

The same credit system that allows players to make numerous bets and pay either at the end of the week or when their number hits has driven some players into debt, according to police and those who say they have kicked the habit.

Police also say that bankers sometimes use the money they take in to make loans at extremely high rates, including some loans to persons who purchase drugs.

Disgruntled numbers players sometimes complain to the police. Often, police said, numbers runners carrying large amounts of money are robbed. At other times, disagreements in the numbers world are settled by force.

"We do have a lot of homocides related to gambling and after-hours joints. It's not as nonviolent as everyone would expect," said Emmert of the D.C. police gambling squad.

D.C. police said that numbers banking in the city is not tightly controlled, leaving room for some bookies to launch independent operations of moderate size. "There is a loose organization among all these backers, but there's no godfather in charge of the system," Emmert said. He said there are about 30 known large numbers operations in the District.

Last year the D.C. gambling squad made more than 300 arrests in connection with numbers operations and seized $234,000 in cash, numerous weapons and some drugs. In recent years, however, stiff sentences or heavy fines rarely are imposed for convicted numbers operators.

"Nobody looks down on it," Emmert said. "The courts don't frown on it and judges aren't apt to frown on it."

Supporters of the legalized gambling referedum hope that disenchantment with the illegal operation will win votes on May 6 and attract many bettors to the District's proposed legal game, which will pay 600-to-1 odds with no 10 percent take for the writer.

One middle-aged woman who works nights cleaning a downtown office building and writes numbers on the side said she will vote for the legal lottery and stop playing the illegal numbers game if the referendum passes.

"You have no proof when they cut the number, and you can't go to the police," she said. "I think if they legalize it in D.C., it will really put a hurting on the street number."

Legend has it that the illegal numbers game was begun in New York by a West Indian gambler. The first numbers were taken from the Cincinnati stock exchange. A night number later developed based on a roll of the dice.

In the mid-1930s, the first of the dream books, "Police Pete," began appearing in Washington. The Books have been popular in the superstition-rich world of numbers players who use them as guides to not only the right street number, but also the correct Maryland number.

"Lucky Oysters" is one of the most popular books on the market, numbers writers say. Many players also try to improve their selections with "lucky candles," "money drawing spray" and even blessing plans formulated by ministers.

While big numbers winners have often been considered simply lucky, many of those who run the business have gained respect, especially in communities where the lack of opportunities in legitimate business made the numbers game a path to success and status.

"I have a lot of respect for them," Emmert said. "If a lot of those guys put their resourcefulness into something legitmate, there's no telling what they could achieve."