Flutter that has lost its kick

Today Littlewoods launches its most dramatic attempt yet to stave off defeat at the hands of the Lottery. Peter Popham on the fall of the pools
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Littlewoods today launches a new way of doing the football pools, called Quick Pix 10. It will be available in post offices all over the country. Each entry costs pounds 1, and all you will have to do is pick 10 numbers between one and 58 and mark them with an "x". It is almost as mindless as the National Lottery.

Each number refers to an upcoming football match; the difference from doing the pools in the past is that the punter need neither know nor care who is playing whom, nor anything about the form of the teams, their new signings, their prospects and so on. Just bang down those crosses, slam in the coupon and wait till Saturday comes.

It is the most drastic innovation in the pools since Littlewoods introduced Treble Chance - one point for a home win, two for an away, three for a draw - back in 1946, paving the way for the era of big jackpots. It has been forced on Littlewoods because these are dog days for the pools companies.

The lottery has succeeded beyond their worst nightmares. "Everyone was taken aback, the country's gone mad over it," said a former Littlewoods executive. At a stroke it has leapfrogged the pools to become the third biggest betting earner in Britain, behind fruit machines and betting shops. Mintel, the market analysts, believe that about 15 per cent of the population has been tempted to gamble for the first time by the lottery - but it appears that millions of habitual punters have been induced to switch from the pools. Littlewoods, whose share of the pools market is over 80 per cent and who used to receive more than 7 million coupons weekly before the lottery, has lost about 20 per cent of its revenue; while Vernons is down 24 per cent.

Quick Pix marks the start of the pools firms' attempt to claw some of that market share back. It marks a decisive moment in the decay of the love affair between the British people and the football pools - an affair that has lasted over 70 years.

Consider what the contrasting rituals tell us about how the world has changed. The lottery is social, public, as European as a pavement cafe (we were the only country in Europe besides Albania not to have one, as the government put it in 1992), apparently universal in its appeal, requiring no skill or knowledge beyond basic numeracy. You line up to buy your ticket as if it were just another item of shopping.

The pools' appeal has always been largely working-class. Until five years ago no one benefited from it except the pools companies themselves, the winners and the Exchequer. It is British through and through, being rooted in the national sport and giving its punters the opportunity to indulge many British vices, including hypocrisy (it's betting but it looks like homework), conceit (the "experts" with their "systems") and love of privacy (the whole thing takes place behind closed doors).

Above all, doing the pools was imbued with a suffocating aura of cosiness that put it on a different plane from the raucous passion of the races or the melancholy of the dog track and the betting shop. In its submission to the Royal Commission on Gambling of 1949-51, the Roman Catholic Church argued that the pools had become "a national pastime" and was "beneficial, since in many homes happy evenings are spent by the family remaining together and filling up their coupons".

Betting on football started in the 1880s, soon after the establishment of regular football fixtures. Then in 1922 a Liverpool telegraphist called John Moores and three partners began touting coupons outside northern football grounds. By 1925 it was beginning to click. The advantage of the budding pools firms was that, as all stakes were pooled, the size of the pay-out depended not on fixed odds but on the total stakes paid in. The business began to snowball: from receipts of pounds 257 for the 1924- 25 season to pounds 2,000 for 1926-27, then soaring to pounds 10,000 a week in 1928.

By the 1950s, Britain's football pools was, according to Mark Clapson in A Bit of a Flutter, "the biggest privately-owned gambling concern in the world". For the readers of the tabloid press, there was no better way of living vicariously than through the joys and sorrows of people whose only difference from oneself was how they had filled in the coupon.

The big winners became folk heroes, figures in a contemporary morality play which encompassed every shade of tragedy and farce. The perennial favourite was Vivian Nicholson, who declared in 1961 when she and her husband won pounds 152,000 that she was going to "spend, spend, spend". She was true to her word: 29 years, four husbands and one suicide attempt later, she was reported to be living on a widow's pension of pounds 30 per week, and to have become a Jehovah's Witness.

For other winners, nemesis came more quickly: the Scotsman in the 1960s who drank his way through a pounds 26,000 win in under a year; the family in Leamington Spa who were punished for their pounds 330,000 win when their house was trashed, their coloured patio stones stolen, and their goldfish murdered with a fork.

As the lottery has become today, the pools was the stage where envy, greed, folly and virtue played out their roles. Yet with the exception of the Treasury, the winners and the owning dynasties, the nation got little obvious benefit from all this activity. On the strength of the weekly coupons, Littlewoods built a retail and mail-order empire that now dwarfs its pools business - but the Moores family and their rivals, despite goading from politicians and press, seemed to feel no obligation to do anything to improve the impoverished lot of many of the football clubs on which their business depended. Only with the threat of the lottery did they set up the Football Trust in 1990 and the Foundation for Sport and the Arts (FSA) in 1991 (betting tax was reduced so the firms didn't actually feel any pain), through which they now hand out a total of some pounds 90m per annum to worthy causes.

These were desperate concessions made by an ailing industry. The secretive Moores family has maintained Littlewoods as a private business since 1923; now a former chief executive from outside the family circle, Barry Dale, fired by the family last year, is seeking to buy them out, with the backing of the feared American takeover specialists Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. In August the firm announced the closure of its coupon-processing plant in Cardiff with the loss of 200 jobs; altogether 1,100 jobs have gone in the past year, and further redundancies are threatened if business continues to deteriorate. The pools companies want the Government to make further concessions - more tax cuts, for example - to the pools to avert the danger of even more job losses.

For the punters the task of guessing results and filling in coupons becomes more and more like a chore, less and less a unique key to happiness. People who never contemplated doing the pools have become regular lottery players, tempted by the way it fudges the distinction between betting and giving to charity. Both the moral and class inhibitions that deterred people from playing the pools are absent: playing the lottery is as classless as queueing at a supermarket checkout. As a result, the pools suddenly seem incredibly dated, as redolent of the past as Norman Wisdom or Come Dancing.