Why the bookies say there’ll always be an England

Leslie F. Hannon IN LONDON April 21 1962

Why the bookies say there’ll always be an England

Leslie F. Hannon IN LONDON April 21 1962

Why the bookies say there’ll always be an England


Leslie F. Hannon IN LONDON

“The English are wonderful gamblers. They are always well behaved and keep a poker face but you can never tell what is going on inside." The speaker was John Mills, a Pole who came to England during the war and who now runs Les Ambassadeurs gambling club in London's Hamilton Place. With his publicity man. Lord Kimberley, he was shewing the press around his new chemin de fer layout. His club, in a mansion built by the Rothschilds in 1860, is one of the world’s most elegant. Club members pay up to $30 to play each "shoe" of chemmy and the maximum stake is stated to be $300.

Crockford's, the famous gambling club established in London's West End in 1827. recently raised nearly half a million dollars to redecorate and refurnish the club to provide “chemin de fer in perfect surroundings under perfect management." This involved hiring a complete chemmy staff from the Casino de la Forêt at Le Touquet. Crockford’s membership stands at one thousand and the club cleared $100,000 last year from its card games alone.

These are only two of the more exotic illustrations of how last year's controversial Betting and Gaming Act, after its first season’s application, is giving gambling in England an anything-goes atmosphere.

Though it is no doubt the most decorous mania in history, there’s also no doubt that the English are gambling mad. The psychologists have a glib explanation — the average Englishman is so reserved, they say, that he must bust out some place. He’ll stand in queues, suffer endless harassment by minor bureaucrats, swallow atrocious food without complaint, but in his own mind he’s a dashing adventurer who'll risk his shirt at the turn of a card. His character is so involved that he actually gets a certain satisfaction out of losing money.

Betting at the flies

His indulgent government gives him plenty of scope. John Bull and his wife can bet, in complete legality, from their own hearthside on horseracing, dog racing, football matches, Wimbledon tennis, boxing, and even the OxfordCambridge boat race. In village halls and disused movie houses up and down the island they crowd in their hundreds of thousands to play bingo, or the new game of “movie racing." T his last novelty is catching on fast. Patrons pay an entrance fee at the hall door, and a member of the audience is invited to the stage to choose a roll of film at random from several offered. I hat roll is put on a projector and turns out to be a news reel of a race run. say. at Hialeah or Randwick years ago. Í he horses' names and colors are obliterated — only the saddle numbers count. A simplified pari-mutuel is set up and patrons can back their fancies. 1 hen they settle down to watch the race, rooting home their favorites like the crowd at any track.

While the Canadian government is doing its best to block even the simple state lottery that Quebec’s Premier Lesage wants to run, the government

here entices the citizenry into buying savings bonds with prizes of $15,000. No skill required — you just have to be lucky enough to have bought the bond bearing the number coughed out each month by an electronic computer, nationally known as “Ernie.”

It is impossible to state accurately how much money is gambled by the British each year. Some estimates run over two billion dollars; that’s roughly the yearly cost of the entire national health service. Littlewood's, the largest of the several dozen football pool promoters. handled $160 million last year and William Hill (Park Lane) Ltd., who cheerfully call themselves "the world’s biggest bookies.” expect a turnover of about $105 million this year.

Hill himself is a fascinating example of how a man can rise from rags to rich respectability in modern England by laying the odds. In his Piccadilly offices, surrounded by photos of Derby winners and framed cheques that recall historic pay-outs. I listened to the Bill Hill saga. At twelve he was a farm boy in Warwickshire at thirty cents a week; at sixteen, an apprentice toolmaker at the Birmingham small arms company at one dollar a week. At eighteen he was taking bets from his workmates. Now. at 58, he is a multimillionaire in sterling. He owns a mansion in the West Indies, a two-thousand-acre farm in Hampshire, a stud farm in Wiltshire, a towm house in Kensington. He is an important horse breeder and owner — he bred Nimbus, the 1949 Derby winner. and won the St. Leger with his mare Cántelo two years ago.

Hill's often do over a million dollars' worth of betting in a week — much more in the peak weeks of the Derby and the Grand National. In the week ending September 9 last year, they paid out a record three and a half million dollars. Bill Hill himself once accepted a bet of eighty thousand pounds sterling to ten thousand (and won) but his main business today is with the smaller punter.

It's easy to establish a line of credit

with Hill’s — or with any of Britain’s ten thousand licensed bookmakers. The usual credit is for fifteen dollars' worth of bets. Hill's have their own telephone exchange with 400 lines and 1 was told that just before the start of any big race that is being televised, the switchboard is jammed. Many of the phone bettors are women — Hill's estimate that 25 percent of their clients are women.

Even forty-dollar-a-week city clerks here like to be known as “racing men." They profess scorn for the pari-mutuel system of betting at the tracks, but the big majority line up at the four-shilling windows all the same, hoping nobody will recognize them. They openly admire the brass-throated bookies who shout the odds in the ring, and endlessly retell ninth-hand stories of big coups by fearless bettors who had a good thing going.

Bookies scorn the pools

The bookmakers, for their part, scorn the weekly football pools. This British invention is the gambling success story of the century; it's a long-accepted midweek ritual in several million British homes. The neat crosses are inked on the football coupons that flood into the mailbox and off they go with accompanying postal notes. The promoters dangle the oldest sucker-bait of all: every week a fortune must be won. this week it could be your turn. The pools also illustrate another facet of the national character: these people must be mathematical wizards. I have had the coupons explained to me a dozen times but still find them hopelessly bewildering. I don’t know a “treble chance" from a “nothing barred.” but old-age pensioners and schoolgirls here do. And they use the most fantastic systems to sort out the team that will win. lose or draw.

One man recently won nearly $300.000 by pulling from a bag the numbered marbles of his home bingo set. He was topped by Mr. and Mrs. Norman Cope of Barrett Street. Oxford. I hey

allowed their eighteen-month-old son Paul to take stabs at the coupon with a colored pencil. He came up with eight draws on a line that cost half a cent, and the Copes’ pool paid out almost $130.000.

One of William Hill's executives put it to me this way: "Look, all the bookmakers’ figures can be checked. We return seventy-five percent of wagered money to the punter. The pools return thirty-three and a third. The government lifts another third in taxes from the pools, and the promoters take the rest for running expenses and profit. What sort of a gamble is that?" Hill’s, and many other bookies, are in the football business too—they offer fixedodds betting. On their coupons they offer six-to-one you can’t name five teams that will win on their home grounds out of a normal Saturday’s fifty-four games. They'll give you sixtyto-one for three draws.

The United Church of Canada is dead against lotteries because (and I quote the Montreal Presbytery) "they tend to form a false philosophy of life and to promote the idea of getting something for nothing." It seems that Canadian governments listen to the voice from the pulpit. Here, the churches’ Council on Gambling holds the same general views, but the government turns a deaf ear. The Council said recently. "A sense of social unease is growing in the general mind of society. bringing restlessness to more and more individuals who become increasingly sensitive to any restriction of their means."

The English churchmen may well be right, but that “sense of social unease" must have been around for a long time. One of the earlier acts that was amended by last year's betting bill was dated 1541. l.ooking back over gaming legislation of the last two hundred years, a pattern emerges: every decade or so the government is forced to take another liberalizing step in acknowledging that the people love to gamble and that they’ll keep on gambling no matter what. Lord Kimberley, at Les Ambassadeurs, is a bit worried now that chemin de fer is legal in a club. "The English loved to gamble abroad, or in London when it was illegal here," he said. "This place will either go like a bomb or not at all."

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of gambling in Britain — certainly the most fascinating aspect for foreigners — is that the word does not have an underworld or derogatory connotation, it might be unfair, but a man described in Toronto or Vancouver as a gambler is unlikely to be considered socially desirable. The opposite can be true here — there is a definite admiration for the well-mannered plunger. He is welcome in the best clubs — such as Bucks, the favorite city retreat of Prime Minister Macmillan. When Charles James Fox, the brilliant politician who did his best to save the American colonies for Britain, lost ninety thousand dollars at the tables in one night, everyone thought him one hell of a man. Today, John Stanley, eighteenth Earl of Derby, is a leviathan punter, in a word — gambling has status. ^