Monday, 10 February 2020

Pubs and punters

I was recently in a pub in central Stockport* when a bloke quickly finished his pint and said he had to leave to put a bet on at the nearby bookie’s. “Beer and betting, that’s all I live for now,” he said. And the two activities certainly have a long and close connection. Before the legalisation of off-course betting in 1961, the pub was the favourite hangout of the bookie’s runner, and the preferred activity of the legendary Pub Shaman of Prestwich was “the solitary pint in a smoke-filled vault poring over a fixed odds coupon and going through a packet of Bensons.” One of my local pubs when I lived in Runcorn had a betting shop built in a corner of the car park for the convenience of its customers.

I have to say it’s something that has never remotely appealed to me, and I have never put a commercial bet on in my life. However, I recognise that, since the dawn of mankind, there has been an irresistible inclination to lay wagers on all kinds of activities, and gambling is an extremely popular activity worldwide, even in countries where alcohol is prohibited. It is also something that is highly susceptible to criminal activity, which is why there is a strong argument for making it legal to a greater or lesser extent, to bring it in from the cold. That, of course, was the motivation behind the legalisation of off-course betting in the UK in 1961. While strictly illegal, it was widely tolerated beforehand and indeed implicitly supported by the publication of race cards in newspapers.

In some respects, gambling is similar to alcohol in that it is something that is widely enjoyed, that most people manage to cope with and keep under control, but which does cause serious problems of addiction for a minority. Both have issues of restricting access for minors – while children are now widely admitted to pubs, betting shops are strictly over-18s only. Plus, both have for a very long time been the target of campaigns of moral disapproval. Indeed at present it seems that gambling, especially in terms of its connection with football, is the subject of a moral panic that possibly is diverting some of the prohibitionists’ attention from alcohol.

I can’t say it’s a subject that I’ve studied in any depth, and it’s not for me to say that the balance between control and permissiveness has currently been struck in the right place. But I know that Christopher Snowdon, who has been assiduous in exposing the lies and exaggerations of the anti-drink lobby on his Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blog, has pointed out many of the same things about gambling, that both the prevalence of “problem gambling” and the rate of its increase have been greatly overstated by the those whose agenda is to oppose gambling per se.

This underlines one of the key problems faced by those who are opposed to increased lifestyle regulation, that people so often think in silos and, while they may perceive a threat to their favoured indulgence, fail to draw the connection with other activities towards which they are indifferent or indeed may even actively oppose. There’s no point in standing up for freedom if you’re only prepared to defend those things you personally like.

* No prizes for guessing which one.


  1. Unsurprisingly I find it very hypocritical that a government that runs one of the biggest gambling scams in the country can get so morally outraged about other gambling.

    High street and on course bookmakers work on a 5% margin. That is 95% of the stakes are returned to the punters. Fixed odds betting machines, the biggest source of ire, have lower margins than that, 2% to 3%.

    But the national lottery works on a 50% margin. Nor do you need to go into a bookmakers shop to gamble on the national lottery. You can gamble in your local newsagent or convenience store. And, until quite recently the draw received free prime time TV coverage.

    Mathew 7:-1-5 seems apposite.

    1. I'm no great fan of the National Lottery, but most of that 50% goes to "good causes", and isn't profit either to the government or the operator.

    2. If something is wrong - as the anti gambling lobby think - then the facts that the profit goes to charity is irrelevant. Is a bank robbery justified if you give the proceeds to charity?

    3. Yes, but it's implicit in the operating model of the National Lottery that a substantial portion of the takings goes to "good causes", and punters are well aware of that. It's not remotely like Denise Coates make a massive wodge of profit and then deciding out of the goodness of her heart to give a bit to charity.

      Also something like the Lottery or the football pools isn't really comparable to everyday sports betting as there's no realistic expectation of winning, it's just a remote chance of making it big.

  2. Gambling is for fools...go into your average betting shop and look at the penniless lot of them! Same with casinos -I went to a casino in Manchester (just the once), got quite dressed up, thinking it would be full of James Bond and Britt Ekland types. Hah! It was full of the same crowd of dishevelled, downtrodden, unshaven losers found in William Hills and BetFred.

    I'm totally against horse racing too; every animal lover should be. Look up the number of horses that die during British races and be appalled.

    1. Much the same as the clientele in your average Spoons, then :P

    2. Of 93,000 runners last year about 200 died during races. More worrying are the 10,000 that are slaughtered when their racing days re over.

  3. Professor Pie-Tin10 February 2020 at 21:07

    For one of the pubs in my local town the busiest week of the year is that of the Cheltenham Festival.
    It's busier than Christmas,New Year and even the St Patrick's Day weekend.
    The Cheltenham Festival holds a special place in the heart of most Irish people.Thousands flock over for it and yes they include gambling and horse-mad priests who drink and bet with the same passion as their parishioners.
    In this pub they plan for this weekend from the moment of the last race of the previous year's festival.They pull strokes and do foxers and hide every cent from their missus just for that moment when they can walk into the pub on the opening day of the festival with a big wad in their ass pocket.
    And I mean thousands of euros.
    Which they will spend come hell or high water,whilst drinking themselves stupid,over the next few days.
    But just for that brief time in their not very interesting lives they're kings.They're players.They're men once again.
    They grew up with it because just like the kids in the pub running their bets to the local bookies they started in the same way.They can calculate odds quicker than Victor Chandler.
    I remember one year some poor sap did his entire bundle in the first three races of the first day.Just under a grand.He didn't have a pot to piss in after that.But he stayed for the entire festival as his mates bought him drink,subbed him a few quid to gamble and generally looked after him.Because they knew the following year it might be them.
    Amazingly,because I've never know this bloke to do a stroke of work in his life,he was sat in the pub one day nursing a pint when a couple of American gals walked in off a cruise ship that docked in town and got chatting to him.One of them was a lawyer.
    No-one is sure what happened but within weeks the brief had flown him out to the States to live with her and he was set up for life.
    Apparently the fact that,as one of his mates said, he was" hung like a broken drainpipe " might have played a part.
    He lasted a year in the States.Despite being set up for life at the ranch while his sugar-mommy toiled away in court he got bored and started racking up bills doing online betting on the dirt tracks of America.
    I saw him back in the pub the other day.Still hasn't got a job, still putting a euro each way on a dead cert and still drinking without abandon.I take my hat of him for his ability to do this.
    Is he a loser ? Yes and no.I mean,what a story to tell when he's a pensioner sat on the same barstool in 30 years time when someone asks him what he did with his life.
    Most of all I love the theatre of these daydreamers.
    They gamble on a tip from some bloke who heard it off a mate who definitely knew someone who was sleeping with the head lad at the stables.It makes perfect sense.
    And the absolute stubborness of the compuslive gambler.
    I once saw a mate win just under three grand on a five race accumulator. I begged him to call it a day and head home. Two races later he'd spunked the lot and I had to lend him his taxi fare home.
    And some do-gooder will try to regulate this ?
    This is life.The actual choice of a grown-up human being living in a democracy to smoke and drink and gamble and do whatever the hell he wants.
    Without that freedom we're serfs.
    Or North Koreans.

  4. The only thing that's certain in gambling or betting is that the more you do it, the more the odds become reality, and the odds are always in favour of the house.

    1. Yet people do make a good, even honest, living as professional gamblers. But it requires as much, or more, hard work and study as any other job.

    2. But there is always the risk that, if you do make a big win, the bookies are under no legal obligation to pay out. Do you remember the house by the lights in Hazel Grove opposite the Bull's Head that used to have massive posters outside complaining about being "robbed" by one of the big betting firms?

    3. I can't recall any recent case of a major bookmaker refusing to pay a bet. ISTR that complaint was because the punter had made a win which was larger than the bookies payout limit. The limit is well publicised in 2 point print on the betting slip :-)

      What makes professional gambling difficult is that the bookie has no obligation to take your bet. If you win regularly you quickly become persona non grata

  5. I know a professional gambler. Neither he nor anyone he knows in the same business bet on horses as there's no point - the more you bet the more the odds work in favour of the bookies. He rarely goes to casinos as he's barred from most of them and thinks they're pretty much all bent anyway, especially the chains. He plays cards - mainly poker - in private games or tournaments where the games are straight and there's no house to beat.

    1. I'd describe him as a "professional poker player". "Professional gambler" suggests more someone who does it mainly on the horses, such as Phil Bull.

    2. He describes himself as a gambler. There's a big difference between gambling on the outcome of a game of skill and betting on the performance of a horse, dog or game over which you have no control* (* unless you happen to be a member of a large crime syndicate)

    3. Poker is not entirely a game of skill since (with the same proviso) yo have no control over the fall of the cards
      And although you have no control over the running of the horses you do have, or can find, all the information - breeding, recent form, etc - that determines how they will run
      I have no control of the motion of the sun and moon but I could make a good living if I could find some one to take my bet on the time of sunset tomorrow.

  6. Had a gig once related to on line gambling. It's quite fascinating. Games designed to trigger those prone to compulsive behaviour. Account managers encouraging the big losers (10k+ a week losers) to keep going buy crediting their accounts with free money and building a personal relationship. Accounts managed to increase the allowed stakes on sports the punters were crap at and shrink them on those they were successful at. I started the gig with the same liberal view that it was legal vice for adults and no worse than a drink. It didn't take long to figure the Paretto principle was more than a theory. The profits come from a few big losers not the large number of small trivial bets that are considered harmless and are used to convince us it's a harmless vice. Still, it wasn't all bad, I got paid. Which is the important thing.

    1. Likewise it can be argued that alcohol companies make most of their money out of what are classed as "problem drinkers".

    2. From "Fifteen Years" by The Levellers:

      The victims of this world, are advertised on posters
      A beach and a pretty girl, if you just drink their potion
      It's another week 'til his cheque comes through
      He's got a fiver left to spend on food
      But the doors of the bar are open, and he breaks another rule
      He sits on the stool that bears his name
      His favorite glass is called the same
      And he's never kept waiting, 'cos he pays the landlord's wage

      Change a few words, and it could just as well be about gambling.

    3. For sure. alkies are 80% of the revenue of the drinks industry, macro or craft. But there's no harm in punters knowing the cynicism of the market participants either way. Perfect competition requires perfect information as they say.


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