What Are The Most Popular Gambling Games In Prison?

What Are The Most Popular Gambling Games In Prison?

Prison can be tough at the best of times, so it’s not surprising that prisoners find all kinds of ways to keep themselves occupied – including gambling. 

Although technically banned, inmates in prisons all across the world find ways to gamble, whether it is by playing traditional card games like poker or betting at the prison “bookie.”

So, let’s take a look at how, and why, inmates like to gamble.

Why Inmates Gamble

The first and most obvious reason for inmates to gamble, bet, and play games, is to pass the time.

After all, prison is an extremely boring place, and many inmates will do anything to kill a few hours of the day.

But passing the time isn’t the only reason why inmates gamble.

Many inmates who work in American prisons earn next to nothing for their labor.

For example, The Marshall Project reported that one inmate made 20 cents per hour working as a data entry worker for the Department of Transportation while on the inside. 

He received around only $24 per month for this work.

What’s more, in seven states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas, most inmates get paid nothing for their labor

This is a huge problem because several necessities, like toothpaste, are not given to inmates and have to be purchased. This means money can be tight for many people in prison.

When you look at it like this, it’s easy to see why inmates would be eager to try their luck at winning a quick buck. 

Of course, gambling gives inmates an opportunity to win money, but organizing the bets can also provide a solid source of income.

According to The Marshall Project, the same inmate who made $24 a month working for the Department of Transportation also made $173.25 per month (in commissary items) from his unofficial job as a sports bookie.

This income dramatically improved his quality of life on the inside.

Other inmates don’t gamble to make money, but as a way of making friends. 

As an ex-inmate explained to VICE, playing and betting on games like spades and even sports like basketball, are ways of breaking the ice and becoming a part of a social group.

Of course, having friends to look after you is a hugely important part of life on the inside.

Most Popular Ways To Gamble In Prison

Image: Larry Farr/Unsplash

Even though inmates will gamble on all types of things to help pass the time, win money, and make friends, there are a few games which are very popular in prisons around the world. 

Pai Gow

The Chinese gambling game is popular across the world’s casinos, and prisons have followed the trend with inmates adopting their own rules to get away with playing. 

Behind prison walls, this is essentially glorified dominoes. The table markings can only be created by the inmates, although sometimes they do away with markings completely to ensure their game is not busted. 


As a highly competitive game, poker can often result in altercations, including accusations of cheating and ultimately fights.

However, inmates will keep coming back to this game, both to win wagers and to try to prove that they are the best poker player in the prison.

Even though poker is heavily clamped down on in a large number of prisons, it’s still played quite widely.

This is because the simple set-up of cards, wagers, and players means it can be easily concealed and kept secret.


More commonly recognizable as rummy, Kaluki or Kalooki, is particularly popular in the Caribbean, and has more recently adopted the name Jamaican Rummy. It’s proven to be quite a popular card game in many prisons. 

The rules of this game are essentially the same as rummy. The jokers are used as wilds, and the aim of the game is to be the first person to get rid of all your cards.

Once again, it’s a very simple game that can easily be played under the radar.


One of the most popular classic casino card games was always going to make this list. 

Blackjack is easy to learn and to operate without attracting the attention of the guards, making it very appealing to inmates.

It also helps that it is a fast and effective method of settling scores and exchanging bets. 


Dice games are always going to be popular in prisons, and craps is an obvious classic to appear behind bars.

The small dice are perfect for concealing when not in play, and they can also be used for any number of games.

Board Games

While not traditionally gambling games, checkers, chess, and scrabble are all popular games to bet on in prison.

According to one ex-inmate, scrabble games can get very violent, often resulting in fights.

Interestingly, the same person said they never saw a fight happen over a chess match, even when bets were involved. 

Sports Betting

Sports betting is fast becoming more and more popular in prisons, especially now that sports betting is big money across the US.

As we mentioned earlier, the popularity of sports betting creates opportunities for game organizers to make some good money. 

They usually have a connection on the outside who gives them the week’s odds. These are then passed on to other inmates. Bets are then taken, and pay-outs are made based on the outcomes. 

It can be hard for these pools to take off in prisons, with so much information needing to be transferred from the outside. The guards will also have to turn a blind eye because hiding this kind of betting system is difficult.

However, under the right conditions sports betting can be a well-organized pastime, enjoyed by many inmates.

Problems With Prison Gambling

While gambling can be a way of beating boredom in prison, it is also responsible for causing a lot of issues. 

Just like in any casino, gambling in prison involves high stakes and raised emotions. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in accusations of cheating and ultimately, fights. 

What’s more, in any prison there will be a number of inmates who are there for gambling related offenses, be that robbery to pay debts or embezzlement, for example.

These people are most likely addicted to gambling and betting in prison just gives them another avenue to feed their addiction.

However, under the right circumstances, gambling can offer a much-needed break from the boredom of everyday prison life.

And no matter how hard prison guards try, they are never going to be able to wipe out gambling completely. 

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Lead image: International Chess Federation