Brian Viner: Spread betting the quick way to making or losing a fortune

When Beckham scored in the 90th minute, the punter was £76,000 up
Click to follow

Last Friday, in the smoky basement of a west London brasserie, I was a guest at a lunch thrown by the sports betting company Sporting Index. Appropriately, they laid on an excellent spread.

Last Friday, in the smoky basement of a west London brasserie, I was a guest at a lunch thrown by the sports betting company Sporting Index. Appropriately, they laid on an excellent spread.

Many respectable bookmakers (and since my old man was a bookie, I won't accept that as an oxymoron) regard spread betting with a mixture of envy and disdain. Envy because there's a vast amount of money in it; Sporting Index expect to turn over £15m during the World Cup. Disdain, because some of the spreads offered are so manifestly frivolous.

Frivolous but fun. At France 98, a Sporting Index spread called "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" invited punters to predict how many times during the semi-final the TV cameras would close in on Ronaldo's girlfriend, Susannah Werner. In the group matches she had featured constantly, and there was accordingly plenty of interest. But after 10 minutes of the semi-final, there had been no shot of Susannah. Another 20 minutes passed; still no Susannah. Sporting Index duly raked it in, although not without embarrassment when it emerged that the lovely Ms Werner wasn't, erm, there that day.

This time, the dafter bets include a "Sing With Pride" index, based on how many of the starting 22s will sing their national anthem. There is also a "Magic Stretcher" bet: how many times, in the 64 matches, will players be taken off on a strecher? Hmmm. Is there not something distasteful, if not downright grotesque, about a punter cheering a nasty injury because it might yield more winnings? The ethics of spread betting seem to me dubious at times, and the whole business is much more open to corruption than fixed-odds betting.

Indeed, a household-name manager once told me – with that mixture of affection and exasperation dog-owners express for cute puppies still inclined to poo on the kitchen floor – that a number of his players once bet on the time of the first throw-in, then contrived to boot the ball into touch directly from the kick-off. They promptly ran round high-fiving each other, he said, chuckling. Still, as a means of heightening the excitement of the World Cup, if Tunisia v Belgium is not in itself exciting enough, I can understand the appeal. So, for those of you who remain blissfully and doubtless profitably ignorant of the principles of spread betting, this is how it works.

Once the firm has made its prediction, or spread, the hopeful punter either sells (estimates a lower total) or buys (estimates a higher total), citing any permissible sum per unit. In 1998 Sporting Index predicted between 45 and 50 converted penalties. There were just 17. So if you had sold those penalties at £10, you would have collected the difference between 45 and 17, multiplied by £10 – £280. If you had bought, on the other hand, the misjudgement would have cost you £330 – the difference between 50 and 17, multiplied by £10.

One of the most popular bets, player goal minutes, concerns the time a named player scores. I heard on Friday that before the England v Greece qualifier, one reckless punter bought David Beckham for £1,000 a minute. The spread was 11-14 minutes. So after 89 minutes, the punter was heading for a loss of £14,000. When Beckham scored in the 90th minute, he was £76,000 up. Being Scottish, however, the punter still ended up with mixed emotions.

Another popular bet concerns the sum of the goal-scorers' shirt-numbers. In fact, I happen to know that on 13 January this year, one punter – let's call him Mr Smith – decided to the tune of £1,500 per point that the added shirt-numbers of the goalscorers in the Wolves v Coventry City match would exceed the 26-29 offered by Sporting Index.

At half-time the score was 0-0. Mr Smith was gutted. But in the 50th minute Dean Sturridge scored for Wolves. He was wearing number 29. Two minutes later he scored again, netting Mr Smith £43,500. Colin Cameron (21) then added a third and Jay Boothroyd (also 21) replied for Coventry. Mr Smith was exultant, the more so when Wolves were awarded a penalty, and Nathan Blake, wearing 27, stepped up to take it. Regrettably for Mr Smith, he missed.

The Sporting Index spread offered on the total shirt numbers of goalscorers in the 2002 World Cup, incidentally, is 1,850 to 1,900. If, like me, you reckon that France are the most likely winners, then it's worth bearing in mind that the David Trézéguet will probably be wearing number 20, with Thierry Henry in the 12 or 14 shirt.

As for England's prospects, it's generally unwise to put your money where your patriotism is. Conventional bookmakers and spread betting firms alike make pots of money from optimistic bets on England. That said, Sporting Index reckon England will score no fewer than five, but no more than six goals in the World Cup. Worth buying, surely.