Nine Million Gamblers
Britain's football pools make a piker of Monte Carlo. Nine million play them, hoping to win enough to retire. A few do
HAROLD A. ALBERT
YOU COULD tell Manor Road in the austere Yorkshire colliery village by the cars parked on both sides. You could pick out No. 23 by the newsreel trucks, the trailing cables of the recording cars, and the people who milled around the doorway as if waiting to see a corpse carried out.
I pushed my way through the crowd of cameramen and reporters into the living room and found Johnny Davies squeezed into a corner. His face was still smudged from the pit. His glasses were steamed up with perspiration. He looked pale and thoroughly frightened, and he had every reason to be. For he had just won a $180,288 dividend in a football pool.
As I write, that’s the record return on a penny investment, but any minute now the top prizes may zoom to $200,000, $225,000, perhaps $240,000. Nine million people have scrambled into Britain’s football gamble, and prize money is currently about $6,400,000 weekly.
To take a chance on this rich melon pool bettors fill out a coupon listing professional football matches for the coming week end. They mark 1 for a home win, 2 for an away win and x for a draw. The coupon lists the games in various combinations and the price of the bettor’s entry varies with the number of games he tries to forecast. The longer the shot, the cheaper it is to play it. After he’s marked the coupon he mails it to the pool. No money is sent—that would be illegal—but the coupon contains a promise to pay up the bet the next week.
When all the entries are in, the pool calculates its gross, deducts five per cent for profit and another 15% for expenses. The rest is divided among the winners and near-winners.
The more people play the pools the bigger the
prizes are apt to be. They are reaching fabulous sums. Two people, a fireman and a mechanic’s wife, recently shared $376,000. A trawler fisherman put into harbor and his wife, half fainting, met him on the quay to announce she’d won $112,828. A Limehouse lumber sawyer filled in his coupons in exactly the same way for 14 years . . . until he made a mistake one night that brought $45,512.
Every week, in addition, at least 100,000 persons drawsmallerdividendsranging from $4 upward. The high spot this season was when 350,000-—or roughly one entrant in 25—shared the “divis”, and the harassed promoters ran out of money orders.
Beyond the rule, fixed by the pools, that contestants have to be 21 or over, the cash goes to all sorts and conditions of men. A Bradford loom operator has twice won $1,200 in seven months. Lord Armstrong, the armaments king, once received $4,200 and turned it over to charity.
Lord Morrison, a former Labor M.P., has won small sums—-“enough to keep the interest”— on a dozen occasions. In the main, though, the prizes find their way to humbler homes. Characteristically when seven people shared a “twelve results” pool, they included two housewives, a shop clerk, an agricultural laborer, a bus driver, a bank manager and a chimney sweep.
What they did with the cash hardly matters. Daydreams the world over are standard. A housewife talked of buying a helicopter, but plumped for a mink coat and joint annuities. A teacher sent his tubercular sister to Switzerland, making up his mind so fast that he had the plane reservation by t he time he received the pool cheque.
An old-age pensioner waddled onto t he stage of her local theatre to receive $50,000, and handed the cheque to a priest, saying, “You can do more good with t his than 1 can.”
All this, however, represents a social phenomenon without precedent. The total sum annually wagered is rapidly mounting to $280 millions and the joint turnover of the Calcutta and Irish Hospital sweepstakes at their prime ran to barely a third of this figure. The pools’ handle last year was five times greater than all the bets placed at the race courses.
Even Monte Carlo casino does less than five per cent of the business of any one of the “big five” pool firms—Littlewoods, Vernons, Shermans, Cope and ITP (formerly Imperial Tote Pools). Though the average outlay on each coupon is 3s 6d, less than a dollar, the astonishing gross actually equals the entire movie box-office take for the whole of Britain! Continued on page 47
Continued on page 47
Nine Million Gamblers
Continued from page 21
This all adds up to big business, so big that the standardized promoter’s profit of five per cent amounts to $14 millions a year—shared mainly among five firms. Operating costs are standardized at 15%—currently about $42 millions a year—to cover staff salaries, postage, commissions to agents, printing, advertising, whisky, banquets and “aftercare” service for winners and free vacations at Blackpool for hundreds of ace girl sorters, and it’s said that the pool promoters are still at their wit’s end to know what to do with their money. Big business? It’s colossal.
To keep up with their bets the industry employs 50,000 women clerks. On Thursdays, when the coupons commonly flood the mails, the post office has to run extra mail trains to Cardiff and Liverpool, the two chief pool cities.
The pool fever is almost universal. People talk pools in the queues, in the pubs and at their frigid firesides. One adult in every three, in fact, now fills in a weekly coupon.
Mr. Jones prefers the long shots— with correspondingly larger divis— such as forecasting the results of 12 football matches. Mrs. Jones has her quiet fun trying “three draws,” essaying three draws from among 30 games. Grandpa Jones enjoys the “penny points,” allotting one point for a, forecast home win, two for an away win,
three for a draw, and working out different combinations for 15 matches, 15 penny entries.
14 Million to 1 Chances
Legally this makes a pool a game of skill exempt from the lottery laws, yet the odds against Grandpa winning a big prize have been assessed at 14,348,907 to one. There happen to be 531,441 different ways of filling in a 12-forecast coupon, too. That’s why Mrs. Jones picks her results with a pin.
Some enthusiasts spend hours studying football form. Others, like the Limehouse veteran, systematically enter a fixed pattern of wins-losses-draws week after week in the same unvarying order.
The pool firms deter professional gamblers by fixing maximum stake money at $20. They employ hot mathematicians to keep a wary eye on brainy permutation systems but take no effective steps to discourage systemists or amateur syndicates. On the contrary, when the entrant marks his coupon, “Permute to nine places,” the pool firm will rearrange his 1-2-x’s in nine different ways to a prearranged plan, on the principle of making coupon filling as simple as possible.
Handling 60% of the trade Liverpool has been called the coupon capital. Littlewoods alone employs some 11,000 people, mostly girls, while another 6,000 or so work at Vernons. Care to watch them? On Tuesday their desks and tables are reasonably clear, but by Wednesday the pools are head on to the incoming tide.
To prevent bogus entries being slipped in after the results are known, all incoming letters are passed through a battery of embossing machines which mark both the envelopes and tho coupons inside, and the machines are sealed and locked before kickoff time.
The embossed coupons and postal orders for the previous week’s coupons are then removed from the envelopes and the former are put away in a safe to await the results.
Amid sackfuls of mail, baskets of envelopes, swirls of clipped paper, stacks of coupons, that’s how the routine goes until Saturday. At noon the girl sorters march out; an army of middle-aged women scavenge the hall for coupons or torn letters, and the short-sleeved girl checkers march in.
Zero hour. The double-checked results come in from the Press Association and 10,000 marker cards roll off the firm’s printing press. An exact fit to the various pools on the coupon, they show at a glance whether an entry wins a dividend.
Special pens, inks and pencils are used to prevent employees altering coupons. In the wins section accountants and calculating machines work out the dividends. These are announced and the pay staff begins its task.
All over the country next day there’ll be people dancing elatedly to the old soothing tune of something for nothing, or something for apparently very little. The big pools employ their own announcers to knock at doors and break the news of five-figure wins, and the
palm is held by the cool retort of an $80,000 winner, “More than 1 expected but, pardon me, I’m in the middle of a meal!”
Target for Swindlers
Sometimes people write protesting that they forecast the results correctly, and why haven’t they won? Against this contingency coupons are filed for six weeks, and photographs clinch the argument.
Every other week, too, the Big Five run up against a really clever attempt to swindle the pools—clever, but not necessarily new or original. Winners are always checked against possible black-listing in the pool “rogue’s gallery.” Since every winning coupon is also checked seven times, including scrutiny by analytic detective lamps, it is claimed that swindlers cannot get away with it. So far as is known, no one ever has!
One man claimed a win and when the pool replied that his entry contained two errors he sent in his own photograph of the coupon. Sure enough, it showed a completely correct entry. There were individual witnesses who claimed to have seen the coupon photographed and the man declared his correct coupon had been altered in the pool office. The pool looked up his record. He’d been submitting entries for some months without winning but all entries had one oddity. They’d always been sent by registered mail.
Why had he been so anxious to have legal proof of posting? When the man threatened to create a public scandal by suing the pool unless it paid up he gave the show away.
Microscopic examination of the handwriting on the incorrect coupon and the photographed coupon showed certain differences. Though both were from the same hand they were certainly not identical. For months the man had been photographing his coupons before witnesses in hopes of a near win. When he found he’d only two mistakes he filled out a coupon form correctly after the results, secretly photographed it and—of course—switched photos.
Subtle? Perhaps. So were the mobsters who acquired jobs in a pool office and attempted to guide a coupon through various stages of checking. They were detected as soon as they found it necessary to offer bribes to a supervisor. Even then their coupons wouldn’t have passed subsequent ultraviolet and infra-red checks.
Once a blank coupon was attached to the back of another coupon so cunningly that it passed through the embossing machines, but even the confederates inside a pool factory are fooled by the switch around of girls following no prearranged plan which takes place before results are known.
“I’ve tried to beat my own security system with test coupons,” says one of the managers of Vernons. “It can’t be done.”
TVpical of pool firms, Vernons have their own detective bureau headed by Fred Casburn, a former Scotland Yard ' Special Branch man, and 30 exdetectives, who are the specialized core of a staff of hundreds whose sole job is to spot false claimc.
How They Got Rich
How did all this fabulous furore begin? Not least surprised at their success are the pool promoters themselves, who have nearly all rocketed from small beginnings. The Moore brothers, John and Cecil, controllers of Littlewoods, started by taking their neighbors’ football bets in a Liverpool front parlor. Now they own 24 chain I stores, hotels, theatres and apartment
blocks. Vernon Sangster, of Vernon’s, began pool promoting in a Liverpool store. The founder of Cope’s was a hairdresser, and Alfred Cope, the present director, began as an office boy.
When he was stamp licking, back in the roaring twenties, a Sunday newspaper introduced a football forecasting competition as a circulation stunt. Other newspapers took up the challenge, prizes soared from $5,000 to $100,000 as the battle heightened, and the combined entries soon ran into millions a week.
Then the Chief Constable of Sheffield instituted proceedings against one of the papers for infringing the Ready Money Football Betting Act and no one was more relieved than the newspaper proprietors when he won the day. The case established that newspaper football forecast contests were illegal, but not football betting with bookmakers who ran accounts with their clients.
This was good news to a Mr. Jack Barnard, who had started one of the first football pools in a one-room office in Birmingham. It was good news, too, to a bookie named Littlewood, who responded to his first glimpse of a Barnard coupon by starting a pool himself. The Moores, who had printing facilities at their disposal, bought a share in Littlewood’s business in order to push the pools side. Vernon Sangster, Sr., a Preston bookmaker, thought little of the pools scheme, but his son branched out with unlimited confidence.
So the pool snowball started rolling. The newspapers had created a public eager for competitions and big prizes; the tote (pari-mutuel machine) with its startling dividends had seized Johnny Bull’s imagination—hence a pool, instead of fixed-odds betting. But the idea really got going in 1933 when the FPPA (Football Pool Promoters Association) was formed and stakes leaped to $32 millions.
Rumors were rife that unscrupulous members of the industry were offering footballers huge bribes to “fix” what appeared to be sure wins. Some promoters weredeductinggigantic “profits” without publishing accounts. A government-appointed Betting and Lotteries Commission recommended the prohibition of pool betting.
The FPPA came none too soon. It cleaned up the business, regulated the amounts deducted for expenses and profits, rallied political opinion. A bill to suppress the pools was squashed as an “unjustifiable interference with public liberty.”
The pools used to broadcast results from Continental commercial stations on Sunday mornings but had to abandon this in the face of church opposition. Advertising in movie theatres also had to be dropped lest it should encourage the gambling instinct in infants.
The Footballers Object
Jealous of the risk of making football more a gambling opportunity than a sport, the powerful Football Association then flared up, and suspended announcements of forthcoming matches until it was too late for the pool firms to print their coupons.
Printing firms vainly offered $250,000 for the right to reprint the fixtures. The Football Association was adamant. But football fans were so enraged and attendances at games fell so drastically that the scheme fizzled out.
The snowball rolled on. The gross topped $180 millions in 1939. Came the war and the pool promoters combined forces to produce one pool, Unity, staffed mainly by teen-agers and a few spare-time workers. Littlewoods converted their huge premises to the
manufacture of barrage balloons and RAF dinghies. Vernons, with their eight Liverpool factories, ran the gamut from shells to parachutes. The pool gross slumped to $32 millions, picked up to $60 millions in 1945 and catapulted last year to $92 millions.
Incidentally, a Littlewoods branch pool at Blankenberghe, Belgium, though investigated by the Gestapo, was found harmless and continued to function, accumulating profits steadily. Fixtures and results were learned from the radio. And for months before D-Day, unsuspected by the Germans, the arrangement of football matches on the Belgian coupons was a code distributing information throughout the underground. When the victorious armies rolled through the town, a placard over the main square announced, “Littlewoods welcome you!”
Now 1947 finds the pools back in bigger-than-ever business — but back with not a few extra problems.
The Stubborn Schoolmaster
In the old days John Moore and Vernon Sangster studied the intricate mail-order systems of Eaton’s and Sears, Roebuck. Besides publicity appeals neatly tucked into coupon envelopes—“Your turn next in the happy family!”—new customers were won mainly by circularizing. Now the post office imposes a quota on outgoing mail of 60% on 1939 figures.
Some pools, headed by ITP, have circulated coupons through newsstands and thousands of shops, but other promoters see implicit danger in this form of trading.
They remember when Unity, in which each member firm had a percentage interest, tried to solve the mailing problem by publishing coupons in newspapers. A Stockport clergyman sued to prove this illegal and won his test case. Faced with severe revenue loss, as it happened, the post office relaxed the restrictions then imposed on coupon mail. But where will the next ban fall?
Recently a schoolmaster was fined for failing to show his bus ticket when
required. His defen.se was that he objected to pool advertising on the backs of tickets and made it a habit to tear them up.
News like this makes pool promoters shudder. For if one person in three contentedly fills in coupons—often unaware of the betting implications— there’s also a considerable amount of resolute antipool agitation.
The case against the pools is this: That, enfranchised by the Betting and Lotteries Act, a small, tightly closed ring is amassing vast fortunes by turning Britain into a gambling casino. That secrecy surrounds the $56 million gross deduction for profit and overhead, including not only undivulged promotion rake-offs but also uneconomic commissions paid to a vast army of canvassers and coupon collectors. And that grand-scale betting discourages thrift and industry and has become a nation-wide social evil.
Above all, however, there’s the powerful argument that, despite Britain’s crucial manpower problem, the pools absorb a labor force of 50,000 women.
If diverted to the clothing industry this army could end clothes rationing within 12 months.
The pools and their defenders argue that if people prefer pools to pants that’s their affair. Britain is not totalitarian and the wartime direction of labor has largely ceased. If pool girls can be dispensed with, what about chorus girls—or film stars?
Less grandmotherly than former governments, a Cabinet spokesman closed the pools debate in the House of Commons with these words: “I am not entitled to impose my moral views on other citizens. It’s a matter for them to decide.”
Gravy for the Post Office
But it’s pointed out, not least by the pool promoters, that the Government— and the taxpayer—actually derive revenue from the pools. Pool postages are yielding $24 millions a season. The post office collects another $10 millions on money orders—sales up 700% ! And, besides stamp duty on cheques and
$1,600,000 entertainment tax from football matches, $1 million has just been paid as purchase tax on last season’s pool coupons, assessed at their wholsesale value.
Soon the Exchequer may make even more. A tax on betting, including pool dividends, figures among the new budget proposals.
Paradoxically the churches are the chief opponents of the pools-andbetting tax. They claim that to make betting a source of revenue would be to fasten it more firmly on the country and make the Chancellor of the Exchequer dependent on gambling.
Threatening new drifts and undercurrents, in fact, swirl through the pool world. Buccaneering rivals are entering the field, scorning the old FPPA, among them a big business syndicate who proposes to gain popularity by
canalizing 80% of their profits into trust funds for British sport, aiming to build new stadiums, raise funds for the Olympic games, launch pensions for footballers. And there’s the background danger of some 550 small firms, who mushroom to quick but unscrupulous profits.
Can the pools themselves keep their house in order? “What we want,” says Hubert Vickery, of ITP, “is the establishment of a new organization similar to the Hays Office in Hollywood. We need a man like the original Hays to lay down rules and conditions which all pools must follow. The task of protecting the public cannot be left to voluntary censorship or good will . . .”
The proposed salary for the right man is $120,000 a year. Win, lose or draw, that’s real money for someone . . . but he’ll earn every penny. if