Monday, 16 March 2009

'The bookies': making a living out of hope

If you live in the UK, you can not miss them. Their typical white and yellow logo can be found in any major city and town throughout England. No High Street seems to be complete without having one; the William Hill betting shops have become an integral part of modern British society. After all, isn't money won twice as sweet as money earned?

Last week, I headed over to north London. Right outside my Camden flat there is a direct bus, the 29, which brings me – via Caledonian Road, Holloway, Finsbury Park, Manor House and Turnpike Lane – all the way to the northern borough of Wood Green. A forty five minutes ride and good fun actually, since I like to go to areas I normally hardly come, even though you cross some pretty dodgy London areas. Especially Holloway, Finsbury Park and Manor House are known for their late night police visits and the sound of an ambulance seems to be an integral part of the neighborhoods’ life. What is also a vital part of many people’s lives here are the betting offices; it is where William Hill is doing big business. Here in the capital, they seem to have found fertile ground in especially the more deprived and rundown parts of London, according to the Independent (March 23, 2008)

In my opinion, most of the company’s revenue, over £1 billion in 2008, seems to be made in areas like these. Many underprivileged can not get enough of the horse racing, gambling, golf, football and bookmaking ever since the company was set up by William Hill in 1934. Steadily the business grew to one of the country’s biggest bookmakers with branches in the UK, Ireland and Spain. A respectable achievement, and they always operated within the boundaries of the law. It bought 624 new betting offices in 2005; the acquisition took the company past Ladbrokes into first position in the UK betting market, with an annual profit of more than £150 million in 2008. CEO Ralph Topping – who took a Saturday job in Glasgow in 1973 and worked his way up – has many scheduled projects for the near future. He plans to expand the online betting business so people from all over the world can place a ‘bet-by-clicking’. Employing more than 14,600 people and with an average of 899,000 bets a day William Hill seems to be the model example of a successful company. But then I ask myself, do I agree with the American journalist Heywood Campbell Broun (1888-1939), who said 'the urge to gamble is so universal and its practice is so pleasurable, it must be evil'?

Because while I am passing these areas, it makes me wonder, how do they make their money and – even more importantly – out of whom? Didn't Arthur S. Reber once say in The New Gambler's Bible 'In every bet there is a fool and a thief'? I always believe luck never gives; it only lends, so it is here is where I become reluctant. Several publications, including a London School of Economics research report, have indicated that it is mainly the disadvantaged, the poor and uneducated, who fill William Hill’s, Ladbrokes', Coral's and all the other pockets. Is it true, like some former gambling addicts claim, that most betting offices seem to have developed a culture which is concentrated on squeezing the last penny out of their customers to generate maximum income? It is too early to say that, and one should not forget they are major private employers responsible for the economic well-being of many households, but the Independent and others seemed to have suggested the average William Hill visitor has had hardly any education and has often not a good idea how big – or slim – his chances of winning are. Or are just simply very young; an investigation by children's charity NCH concluded in July 2004 'children were able to gamble online.'

I believe the safest way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket, but for many it merely is a possibility to escape reality, even just for a minute. Because that seems to me to be part of the William Hill product; selling a ‘dream’. What if you suddenly win a million, a car, a pension? How life changing is that! Without any doubt William Hill, Ladbrokes and so on are the only shop in the area which sell such a dream ride; a way out of boredom, a ticket away from their run down, monotonous life. It is almost like we are in Slum Dog Millionaire.

Unfortunately, for most of us, that is an illusion. At first, casinos and bookmakers are like prostitutes; they are both trying to screw you out of your money and send you home with a smile on you face. Leaving you empty handed (VP Pappy). And for some it takes quite a while, if not forever, before they have realized this. There is little which can be done, since no one can accuse the bookmakers of breaking the law or ignoring regulations. Including me. Clearly the UK's Gambling Act of 2005 offers hardly any protection; no one forces anyone to place a bet or to spend thousands of pounds, if not even more. So if people walk in voluntarily it become quite difficult to force them to stop playing when they are on their way to bet away a small fortune, something they mostly do not even have. So what happened to the bookies' moral responsibility? When gambling has become an addiction or the last resort for people to make a fortune to pay off their huge debts, is that not the time for the bookmakers to step in and say 'no'? What if someone wants to open a new account, while he still owes WH thousands of pounds and it is not very likely he will be able to pay it back soon? Mostly not a problem.

A good example is Graham Calvert, a 28 year old greyhound trainer from Tyne and Wear, who became addicted to gambling and sued WH for continuing to take his bets and allowing him to lose more than £2 million on football, horse racing and golf. In 2008 he asked William Hill to bar him from their branches because of his compulsive habit. Over a period of 16 months, which started in the summer of 2005, he placed £7.5 million on the outcomes of sporting events, sometimes walking into the betting shop with bin liners filled with £100,000 in cash. He had been earning £30,000 a month and began betting £2,000 to £5,000 a time, regularly placing a single bet of £30,000, can be read in the London Times. After about a year, he started to recognize he was suffering from an addiction. In May 2006 he asked William Hill to ban him. However, later that summer he was able to open a new account and resume placing large bets. His biggest gamble was a £345,000 bet backing America to win the Ryder Cup. Unfortunately for Calvert, they lost. The result: his life in ruins. He owed William Hill an estimated £1.5 million and on top of that, his wife left him in 2008 with their two young children. No wife can endure a gambling husband, unless he is a steady winner. The case came just a few months after the mother of a mentally disabled man from Bournemouth, permitted to continue gambling after several local bookmakers had agreed to exclude him, called for gambling regulations to be tightened. Although her son Alex signed six-month self-exclusion agreements with a number of bookmakers in their area, he was subsequently allowed to gamble during the six-month period. It seems to illustrate just something: the only way to return from a casino with a small fortune, is to go there with a large one.

These examples raise questions about ‘responsible gambling’, as mentioned on William Hill’s website. Does the company stick to its own guidelines? On the website it mentions ‘one of the Gambling Act’s objectives are: to protect children and vulnerable people’. It is true I have not seen buses full of school children at the betting offices, but what about ‘vulnerable people’? There does not seem to be a clear definition about who these people are, and that is where it gets tricky. Morally you can argue whether or not a barman should serve someone a tequila shot when he is completely pissed and can barely walk; should a bookie allow someone to continue playing when he is running out of money, credit, steam and his healthy appetite for a bet turns into a horrible addiction? It makes you wonder, was Jeffrey Bernard right when he said: "why in most betting shops you will have nine or ten windows marked "Bet Here" but only one window with the legend "Pay Out."

Lawmakers, however, do believe very much in people’s own responsibility. Graham Calvert lost his case in March 2008. Judge Michael Briggs said: “William Hill has no legal responsibility to protect its customers from the consequences of their gambling.” So it is not possible to draw the conclusion William Hill breaks any laws or rules.

Just before I reached Wood Green, I passed by another bookmaker. A rundown, old building that could use some renovation. Just when I observed the place, the door opened and a guy came out. People always seem to adapt to their environment, as long as they stick around long enough. This guy illustrated that in every possible way. The non-shaved, untidy, long haired, overweight fifty something lit a cigarette and stared into the bus, at me. For a minute I started to feel uncomfortable and was about to wave at him when I realized; he did not even notice me. He was not looking at anything; he was just staring. It was obvious he had other things on his mind. How much did he lose today; how much will he lose tomorrow? And perhaps more importantly, where is he going to get some cash for his next bet? I wanted to get up, get out, scream at him that there is just one good throw upon the dice, which is, to throw them away. But I didn't, I just sat, looked and realised; whatever they make you believe, no dog or horse can go as fast as the money you bet on them.,,,,,,