In the early 1960s, the British state, having decided people could go to hell in their own way, legalised both suicide and off-course betting. Newly legal high-street bookies like my father, poshed up into ‘turf accountants’, still had to do their business behind frosted glass, lest passers-by be corrupted by glimpses of the depravities within. In a school-gate encounter with my mother, a fellow parent, Mr Crapp – a pillar of the local chartered accountants’ guild and man of God – voiced his surprise that she had the brass to show herself in public, given her husband’s job. My doubts about moralism surfaced around this time. Later, the parallel realisation dawned that bankers, mortgage lenders, insurers, even Mr Crapp – the plaster saints of market society – had feet of clay.
‘Casino capitalism’ has become a cliché. But it suggests that the proceeds are doled out fairly, if at random, when in fact punters are often gaming with a rigged wheel. Take the modern betting industry, including the Tote, the former state bookie, set up by Winston Churchill in 1928, and finally hawked off four years ago against industry opposition (privatisation was already New Labour policy before Cameron came in). The winner of the tendering auction was the Warrington-based company Betfred. It’s controlled by Peter and Fred Done, who in a £265 million deal – a big mark-down from the £400 million offered by a private equity consortium in 2007 – bagged a monopoly of totalisator or ‘pool’ horse-race betting in the UK which lasts till 2018.
In Tote betting, winners scoop a stake-proportional share of a pool, rather than betting directly against a bookmaker at fixed odds. You can be given a rough idea of how much you’re likely to win when you place your bet, but actual winnings can only be determined once the race is over, when the size of the pool, the number of punters and the amount they staked is known. For simplicity’s sake, say a dozen people bet a total of £100 on a race. Three of them backed the winner. Alice and Bertha staked £5 each; Clare bet £10. The organisers take their 20 per cent cut, leaving £80, of which Clare takes £40, and Alice and Bertha each get £20.
Betfred plucks a juicy 16.5 per cent commission from win pools, up from 13.5 per cent before privatisation. Also alluring to Betfred was the Tote’s chain of 500 high-street betting shops, and its phone, on-course and online outlets. Betfred realised that it could offer more attractive odds through its shops than those actually paid out by the Tote, without any pushback from its newly docile stable companion. A classic bait-and-switch followed, with punters being promised longer odds when placing their bets than they were paid out at.
Bait-and-switch has also figured in Betfred’s online casino games. Novices initiate themselves with pretend money in games whose software is engineered to run fairly. Evidence suggests that in real-money play, some casino games are weighted in the bank’s favour: in one case, a player who bet 19,196 times on a game that should have had odds of 50:50 won 9201 times and lost 9995. The probability of that happening by chance is less than 1 in 200 million.
The Tote privatisation cost 150 jobs. Betfred brought the wages of inherited staff ‘in line with’ the levels it paid its own shop workers. More recently, staff learned that their wages would be linked to the turnover on the in-shop fixed-odds betting machines that now account for most of many shops’ take and are widely seen as the ‘crack’ of the gaming biz. Online staff forums routinely complain of poor pay and long hours. Latterly the Dones have hit on a new wheeze to extract value from their staff, many of whom are on the minimum wage: ‘Golden Tree’, a loan firm targeted at betting-shop workers and extracting nearly 40 per cent APR.
The Dones’ current worth lies somewhere north of £850 million. As Mr Crapp, now tweaking the ledger for the choir invisible, might say, God doesn’t play dice – the odds aren’t good enough.