For betting or worse, poorer not richer

First the bookmakers invent bets which make it easy to cheat and then they blow the whistle when someone accepts the challenge
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The Independent Online

Ordinary punters - or, to give them a more accurate title, Men Betting Badly - have been long accustomed to operating on a playing pitch only marginally more level than the north face of the Eiger, so the recent spate of gambling horror headlines would not have made a big impression on those whose money is the lifeblood of the sporting betting industry.

Ordinary punters - or, to give them a more accurate title, Men Betting Badly - have been long accustomed to operating on a playing pitch only marginally more level than the north face of the Eiger, so the recent spate of gambling horror headlines would not have made a big impression on those whose money is the lifeblood of the sporting betting industry.

The task of selecting a winner when all the participants are trying their best is difficult enough; the thought that some of them have other aims in mind just adds another dimension to the conundrum. Any time spent backing horses on a regular basis equips a chap with a healthy scepticism about the probity of most sporting contests. That, plus the traditional reluctance of bookmakers to give a sucker an even break, ensures that rosy optimism does not accompany many through the betting-shop door.

So stories of jockeys being arrested, cricketers being accused of collusion with Indian bookmakers, or Milan players being bribed by Barcelona to beat Leeds do not cause waves of shock to hit the aficionados. Fascination with the details, yes; surprise, no.

And smelling salts certainly were not necessary when we learned that England's footballers had been playing poker for high stakes. Bored young men playing cards for money? Tell me it's not true.

It has to be accepted that gambling is inherent to sport. Indeed, the same competitive urge that helps to create a sportsman may well include an instinct to go for the back pocket when he isn't actively involved. Two of our oldest sports, horseracing and boxing, owe their foundation to gambling, so the fact that it is a vehicle for much of sport's illicit activity owes more to history than any recent descent into decadence.

This doesn't excuse cheating. Throwing a match or a race for personal gain is reprehensible and carries deservedly high penalties. But we could spare ourselves the hysteria and panic that attends every revelation of suspected wrongdoing in this direction.

We have to acknowledge the part played by those sections of the media forever vigilant in the search for something to be aghast about, but it would help if we could bring a little perspective to bear on the subject by establishing who are the real victims. Bookmakers may well be the first and the loudest to bleat, but the losers on almost every occasion are the afore-mentioned punters.

Bookies enjoy the considerable benefit of the fact that for every winner there are a host of losers. Therefore they are able to pay the crooks with the money lost by the innocent. It doesn't always work out as neatly as that, but it is an apt point nonetheless.

It is also worth pointing out that there would be a lot less sin if there was a pro rata reduction in temptation. Bookies have been so intent on creating new betting opportunities that they are the last people entitled to complain.

A delicious illustration of this was the recent furore over the number of MPs who successfully bet on the election of Michael Martin as the new Speaker. Martin was in the list at an attractive 20-1, and a gleeful number of his colleagues filled their boots.

If you are going to run a book on something as daft as that, you deserve all you get. Martin's chances may have been more obvious to some than others, but so is the success of most racehorses. Perhaps this explains why Speakers have to be dragged to the chair - they've backed somebody else.

The proliferation of things to bet on offers so many avenues for fraudulent behaviour it is a wonder that sportsmen don't take more advantage. The state of the cricket betting market in India and Pakistan shows what can happen when this aspect of betting runs unchecked. When easy money can be made by actions that needn't have an effect on the result of the match, such as numbers of overs bowled or run-rates, it is easy to see why cricketers can be lured into bookmakers' conspiracies.

Alec Stewart is the latest to be embroiled in the flood of matchfixing allegations out there. His alleged involvement, which he strongly denies, was to receive money from a bookmaker to supply details of the pitch, the weather and the formation of the team.

This seems innocuous enough, but the next step in the ensnarement is to part with more interesting facts, like your ace bowler has a bad attack of piles. Sprinkling pile-encourager in his underpants is but one move on.

Betting on the subcontinent is illegal, which makes it impossible to keep a check on the ebb and flow of the millions involved. This is not the case here, where the men with the satchels are both the perpetrators and the watchdogs.

First they invent bets that make it easy to cheat, and then they blow the whistle when someone accepts the challenge. Irregular betting patterns - which is their way of saying that someone has been impudent enough to have a big win - invariably lead to a refusal to pay out on the grounds that skulduggery has been at work.

This has happened several times in snooker, and I am sure will happen sooner or later in other sports. Inviting bets on the margin of a victory is a great temptation. If a team are going to win anyway, a slight connivance at the final margin wouldn't seem too big a crime. It may speak highly of sporting morals that it doesn't appear to have happened already.

Anyone who has been around football for any length of time would have been unconcerned about the supposed football scandals involving Kevin Keegan's card school and Barcelona's alleged attempt to keep Milan's mind on the job against Leeds.

Professional footballers have been playing cards as long as they have been playing football. There are few better ways to spend the inevitable empty hours. As a young reporter following the local team, I used to be invited to play nine-card brag with the team only because I could be entrusted to mind the kitty while they took a break to play the match.

A game of nine-card brag can last days and the kitty can reach enormous proportions, so I never had any trouble collecting after-match quotes.

One betting story that was to be welcomed last week was the news that the Football Association have relaxed their rules on players betting as long as the bets don't involve their own team or others playing in the same division. I don't see the reason for the distinction but I applaud the recognition of their freedom the new law gives. Players should be allowed to gamble on their judgement if they so wish. At least it saves them getting someone else to put the bet on.

 

Nothing in sport matches the creative cruelty of the chanting sections in football crowds, and as obnoxious as it often gets, the spontaneity of the lyrics is remarkable.

But the small contingent of York City fans who battled their way out of their flood-stricken county to follow their team on the journey to Cardiff last weekend were not amused when the Ninian Park fans struck up choruses such as "You only sing when you're swimming" and "You're going home on Townsend Thorensen".

What really caused them to complain, however, was the racist tone of Cardiff's stock serenade to visitors from over the border. Sung to the tune of "Always look on the bright side of life", it goes something like "Always shit on the English side of the bridge".

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