The wagers: Betting loses its shifty image

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The Independent Online
TO THE Victorians it was the " brother of iniquity, and the father of mischief", but in Britain today gambling is a booming and guilt-free business.

As social mores have changed, so has the stereotype of the ordinary gambler. No longer is it a loner in the cloth cap and a rolled-up fag wasting his afternoons in the bookies. Nowadays, families watch the National Lottery draw together on television, couples fly off for casino breaks to Las Vegas, and it is possible to play on an Internet casino. Politics too has become lucrative for bookmakers, with record numbers putting a wager on the last election.

Sport continues to draw the vast bulk of the wagers. But it is not just racing. There has been a huge upsurge of betting on football, and the coming World Cup in France will, say the bookmakers, be the biggest ever gambling event in history, taking in an estimated pounds 100m.

Football's rise in the betting stakes began with matches becoming accessible to viewers through satellite television. It got a further fillip when young middle-class professional males with larger disposable incomes began to embrace the game.

Other sports such as golf and tennis are also attracting the punters, although they have yet to attain the popularity of football. Graham Sharpe, of the bookmakers William Hill, said: "Football has been the great success story ... and many of those betting do not think of themselves as regular gamblers, but as pitting their wits and knowledge against the bookies. It is also a sign that gambling is rapidly losing its stigma."

One person who had found football betting eminently acceptable is Adrian Fitzpatrick, who owns a florists' business in Birmingham. In the last World Cup he took pounds 395,000 from William Hill on a betting pattern which hinged on Brazil lifting the trophy.

This time the Brazilian team can get 44-year-old Mr Fitzpatrick pounds 544, 500 by winning the Cup. This is the second part of a two-strand pounds 18,000 bet, the first part of which, Arsenal winning the premiership, has already been achieved.

Mr Fitzpatrick said: "I would certainly never think of myself as a traditional punter. I have an interest in football and this is a fun thing to do."

The established casinos in London have not, in fact, benefited significantly from the gambling boom. The number of customers has risen in three years from 11 million to 11.3 million. One problem appears to be that prospective gamblers have to become members. No such constraints apply in Nevada. Flights to Las Vegas are normally full. One of the airlines, Unijet, says they have been fully booked for the three years the route has been operating.

The National Lottery is seen as one of the main underlying factors behind the change in public perception of gambling. Since its launch in November l994 it has sold pounds 17.5bn in tickets, The lottery game rakes in on average pounds 90m a week even without scratchcard sales. Paul Davis, a Surrey University psychologist who works with the Pathfinder Addiction Service, said: "People now see [gambling] as another aspect of life."

But the potential problem has led the industry to back GamCare, which has been set up to study the social impact of gambling, and to help problem gamblers. Its director, Paul Bellringer, said: "We are not anti-gambling. But it is a rapidly growing phenomenon, and we want to encourage people to be in control of gambling, instead of gambling controlling them."