It’s 117 years ago this month that Oscar Wilde started his epic letter to Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas in Reading Gaol, examining his past actions and current spiritual journey whilst incarcerated. That fact has led to this particular entry developing, from what was going to be a simple ‘note’ about the fun I had over the festive period catching up with old workmates from my IG Sport and Ladbrokes days, into an introspective look at the challenges that face me as I approach my 9th year without the use of employment from ‘The Man’ and the state of the industry as a whole for moderate-staking professional punters (and ex odds compilers/traders) such as myself. Perhaps the analogy is only in my head, but alas, I fear not.
Two wonderful nights-out before Xmas meant a really good catch up with a large number of my old mates and workmates, largely those from the ‘glory days’ around the turn of the century when IG Sport ruled the world. It was a very special team, put together by Toby Brereton, strong almost to a man. My role as Deputy Head of racing was overseen by Ernie (Great One) Burns, the man who invented many/most of the racing spread markets that exist today. To these two men (and the Laird of Airdrie) do I owe thanks for nearly every ‘tool’ that has made me a winning punter, apart from being able to ‘read’ a race. After proving my worth I was allowed to get ‘with’ or ‘against’ whenever I felt it appropriate without fear of reprisal for any single event as long as I got it right the majority of the time, not wreckless punting with the companies money, but, taking a view and laying it. Many others on the desk did so too, the company was getting ‘bundles’, we were all ‘chopping it off’ personally (as long as the clients never had to wait because we were punting Toby had no objection to us betting, he said it made salary negotiations easier if none of us was going to waste an hour of his time begging for a 2k pay rise and his view was ”if your clever enough to make money for us, you should be clever enough to take it from other bookmakers”. In short, times were good.
It is with much fondness that I remember these days, perhaps it is because of them that the stir-crazy loneliness of ‘punting from home’ has hit hard over the last year or so and I had begun to entertain thoughts of returning to gainful employ (if anyone still remembered me…), not for the money, not even necessarily full-time, but for the cameraderie and fun generated on a well run trading desk, feeding from the enthusiasm and opinions of good judges and feeling part of a team that was achieving. It had already occured to me that perhaps my ‘job’ did not really exist any more and from what I was able to gather from the boys still involved in the industry I was right. There can’t be a man Jack of us that doesn’t know that pretty much every bookmaker is ‘botted up to the machine’. The prospect of laying a 600/400 when there is 4 pounds being requested at 2.48 is apparently a sacking offence these days, even if it’s the first bet that has been laid. It appears that prices are only allowed to come from the ‘magic machine’. I hear stories of senior odds compilers being asked for ‘their’ price and replying ”my price is the Betfair price’. I hear of companies removing the word ‘trader’ from job descriptions and replacing it with ‘bet market monitor’ because they have no input, other than to ensure that the ‘bot’ updates the ‘machine price’ in real time. Has it really come to this ? Is there no-one out there in the industry with an opinion until they have looked at the machine ? Is there no-one out there ALLOWED to have an opinion out of line with the paltry liquidity on Betfair at 10am ?
I remember when exchange betting started, as a horse racing punter it was GREAT. Reams of clueless wagon-shunters lining up to lay 7/1 about genuine 5/1 pokes just to play bookmaker, the first two years were bliss, even paying the comm’ it was like finding it in the street. Then the bad times started. All the hooky jockeys and connections started to work out that it was easier to lay 20k at 6/4 of their charge (with almost no risk) to get a wage than attempt to win a race worth 1500 quid, pay the expenses and get 12k on it at 7/4 in the morning and still have to win ! It soon became clear that the late-drifters weren’t the value any more, they were ‘dead’ and so the ‘machine’ became the putrid cheats-charter that I still believe it largely to be (personal opinion). In saying that, it was equally clear that the pre-show ‘smash-ups’ were all live as you like and that bookmakers were being manipulated. For this reason, I can understand how the ‘need’ for the ‘bot’ arose, every red cent in the minute before the show all coming for the one that had just gone massively ‘unders’, I’d probably have done the same thing myself. The thing I don’t understand though, is the obsession with being tied to ludicrously small liquidity on the ‘machine’ 24/7. Is there really no-one out there prepared (or allowed) to ignore pennies and just lay a bet ? Did no-one think the price looked fair enough in the first place ? Does no-one have ANY opinion in the industry any more away from the machine ?
We all know that the bookmaking industry has (largely) deliberately moved away from it’s reliance on horseracing and has used every possible legal loophole to avoid paying as much tax and levy as possible in favour of their beloved FOBT’s and football betting priced up in massively strong Far East markets, but, is their ‘Betfair Bot’ trading model really sustainable in the long term ? Do they care ? Is this really just the carefully contrived death of horse race betting in this country ? I know what I think, I will leave you to be the judge…… The only way forward I can see is the abolition of the best price guarantee, so grudgingly offered by many in the need to compete with the big boys, which just results in the minnows betting overbroke by the off, going skint and being gobbled-up by those same big boys. A vicious circle not easily broken.
It used to be straightforward to turnover over a million a year, most of it on your own accounts, and get 10% or more a year for a real nice wage. Everyone bet to a reasonable percentage in their own right, but, the spread of prices available meant that the best price book was pretty much equivalent to what it is now, just with more individual variation. Even before the crazy on-course pitch reforms which led to 95% of on course layers becoming high stakes ‘arbers’ (more of ‘arbers’ later) betting to cutthroat percentages with those electronic boards that all go ridiculous prices like 7/5 and 85/40 in perfect synchronicity when the price dips under on the ‘machine’.
You didn’t have to stake 1000’s a race to do so, just be betting regularly (usually race by race) and not take liberties with ‘bad’ each-way races. Bookmakers rarely tampered with your account until you got a nice few grand in front and you were politely turned away when they knew they were unlikely to ever get it back. Nowadays, however, attempting to play at best prices (and why wouldn’t you if you are looking to win ?) automatically gets you tagged as an ‘arber’, even though there is rarely any liquidity available to play the ‘other side’ even if you wanted to. It seems that playing best price is now synonymous with ‘arbing’. Let me tell you ‘traders’, IT IS NOT !! For your information an ‘arbitrageur’ (for that is the correct term) is someone who does not take risk, they play both sides and move on. There may be a new breed now that actually does play to trade later, but, they are gambling on the movement of the market, they can get it wrong, it is NOT arbing.
As anyone who has been in my position for the last 6 or so years will know, new accounts are treated with near pathological suspicion. It doesn’t matter where you move to around the country or what friendly friend (or friend of a friend) opens you an account to help get on, if your first couple of bets beat the price you are done for. (I had an account in 2012 that lasted for 11 losing bets (not even a place return), 10 beat the price and it was no more….) I am now VERY reliably informed the days of changing IP addresses are behind us to attempt to find some anonymity. At least 2 (probably many more) major bookmakers are able to detect and store the identification numbers of individual machines and handsets and link new accounts to old ones instantly. I’ve tried changing machines on a regular basis, even that doesn’t seem to work. I wonder what the average guy in the street thinks though when he opens a new account, gets lucky with his first few bets, goes out to celebrate, then comes back to find his account closed ! Or, more pertinently, when he bets a few that shorten up, they get chinned and he gets his account closed !
There was a time when the expression ‘in business to do business’ applied to reputable bookmakers, it seems now that bets are only taken if they can offer no immediate reason for NOT taking it. To request a horse racing bet (heaven forfend it should be each-way or at best price !) is to ask a massive favour of almost any bookmaker. On the internet limits will be low and in the shops the lack of any motivation of staff (I don’t blame them on the wages they are paid), or training or bet knowledge since the advent of EPOS and auto-settling, means the whole task leaves you feeling beholden or even, on occassions, a little ‘sordid’. I can honestly say that in the last 5 years the only pleasureable experience I have had, or courtesy shown, in placing a bet has been with 3 firms. Richard Power Bookmakers, Geoff Banks Bet and Star Sports. Not once have I ever been treated with anything other than 1st class service and the feeling my business was welcomed by any of these firms. The big chains could learn much from them in a return to basic customer service and good manners. There is a noticeable disdain from shop managers these days shown towards regular racing punters, it’s as if their job is to try to stop you playing, no matter what the race, as if minimising racing turnover is their priority.
So what does the future hold for me and those like me ? It appears that I am an anachronism, a creature from a bygone age as far as employment is concerned. My opinions can be as good or bad as they are, it doesn’t matter, nobody needs or wants them, the ‘Betfair bot model’ is all that is required. The halcyon days of IG Sport are never to be replicated anywhere else, how could they be amongst a hoard of ‘bet market monitors’ ? The tiresome chore of getting new internet accounts now seems almost pointless, playing race by race without the safety net of best price guaranteed to get rid of the rancid late drifters at the small meetings will obviously impact massively on percentage win (If only they were policed properly rather than the once a year ‘lamb’ thrown to the slaughter in the name of integrity ?).
So what then ? The simple fact of the matter is, you’ve got to ‘turn it over’ if you want to win. 12% of 250k turnover is not a living wage these days, the only option would appear to be playing bigger size, more selectively, with the firms that actually WANT to take a bet, of course percentage win is sure to suffer, but I’d rather get 7% of a million turnover, offered with a ‘thank you’ than 20 % of buttons, offered through gritted teeth. The swings will be bigger and recovery from a bad run potentially longer, so I’d better start gettin’ it right in a hurry !!
So there you have it. I’m sure there was more I wanted to say, but this lot came out more in the style of Joyce’s ‘stream of consciousness’ than that of Wilde’s aestheticism. Perhaps, like Joyce, it will be best read aloud if you find yourself getting bogged down in it…. It might not be the 20 handwritten pages of Oscar’s De Profundis (I think that’s a given !), but it’s where I’ve been and it seems, it’s where I must go.