Victor Chandler: Always playing his cards right

Victor Chandler has made his money as a bookmaker but it's away from the track that he's really lived his life. He regales Brian Viner with tales of Lester Piggott, George Best and, er, the Queen Mother

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Victor Chandler could comfortably afford to stay at the grand Ritz Hotel on his occasional visits to London, but instead the 61-year-old bookmaker favours a smart but more under-stated place in a side street just round the corner.

This is entirely in keeping with his personality. For although the Racing Post has described him as "the Indiana Jones of bookmaking... the dashing pioneer who turned the industry inside out by upping and moving to Gibraltar in 1998", Chandler in person is modest almost to the point of shyness, and quietly spoken, albeit with a mineshaft-deep voice that bespeaks a lifetime of late, smoky nights.

At breakfast time in his favourite London hotel, a waitress approaches, and very politely he asks for a large espresso in a big cup, hot milk on the side, and a glass of water, no ice. Understated he might be, but it is the order of a man who knows precisely what he wants and how best to get it. Yet it was in this same hotel, he tells me, that he was once rather dramatically denied what was due to him.

"It was the late 1970s, and I had a client in the oil business, my biggest customer, who significantly affected the way our whole year went. He was the first person I'd ever met who had a private jet, which was unusual in the 1970s, and he always used to settle in cash. So I was due to meet him here at 1pm, and I waited. Twenty minutes passed, which was unlike him, and of course it was pre-mobile phones, so I called his secretary. She said, 'He left Ascot in plenty of time, he should be there by now', but an hour later when I phoned again she'd just heard that he'd had a massive heart attack in the car and died. I never saw the money, which was a very significant amount, and it did affect our whole year. I always wonder who had that money. Someone did." A basso-profundo chuckle. "It turned out that his wife never even knew he gambled."

Sudden death might be an extreme way of getting one over on your bookmaker, but at least there's nothing illegal about it. Cricketers such as Salman Butt and Mervyn Westfield, however, have propelled more corrupt methods into the headlines, and from his office in Gibraltar, Chandler has been watching with interest, though not undue alarm.

"At least 10 years ago we steered clear of taking large bets from Indians and Pakistanis on cricket," he says. "The suspicion was that they seemed to know more than we did, and we got our bottom smacked a few times, in a big way. In those days it was more on the result of the match, but the markets they offer in India now are unbelievable, betting on each ball. There's a huge illegal bookmaking business there, which could be taxed and regulated..." He looks almost wistful, as if imagining the potential for BetVictor (as the business has now been rebranded) on the subcontinent.

I ask whether he worries about match-fixing in sports other than cricket. "The lower levels of tennis are a bit dangerous, and we've seen some large bets in eastern Europe," he says. "But in recent years there's been very little to worry about. Football... it's very hard to influence a game, but if we had any suspicions then we as an industry would be shouting very loudly. I mean, one looks at the Italian leagues at the end of a season, when games tend to end in draws if they want them to, but we build that in to what we do."

It is the essence of clever bookmaking; to be reactive as well as proactive. The notorious floodlight failure at Selhurst Park in 1997, when a match between Wimbledon and Arsenal was abandoned seconds into the second half, later traced to a corrupt betting syndicate in the Far East who had the power cut when the score was in their favour, forced a change to the rules of football betting, with no more payouts on half-time scorelines. "They got away with that one," says Chandler, with just the ghost of an admiring smile, "but after that, matches had to be completed."

He pauses while the waitress delivers his espresso, and thanks her scrupulously. It's not just because he went to public school (Millfield, after being expelled from Highgate), that he is styled "the Gentleman Bookmaker". "About a year after that I had a very strange experience," he adds. "I was in Kuala Lumpur entertaining some customers in a private room at a Chinese restaurant, and a chap approached me. He said, 'Hello, Victor, how are you?' I was at a loss. He said, 'You don't remember me, do you? We met a couple of years ago in Hong Kong. You still don't know who I am? I'm the man who turned the lights off at Crystal Palace.' I said, 'You must have made a fortune out of that.' He said, 'I did make quite a lot of money, but I lost it all in a casino in Australia'."

Chandler laughs. All bookmakers enjoy tales of punters taking a hit on the swings after an ill-gotten triumph on the roundabouts. And the story, embracing Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia and Crystal Palace, also encapsulates his global outlook. By moving offshore his was the first bookmaking operation to offer tax-free betting in this country, and his main territories now, apart from the UK, are China, Eastern Europe and Israel. He was also at the very forefront of online betting, and on the day we meet, is awaiting a report on the possibilities of Twitter.

"One thing our industry hasn't done is get to grips with social media," he says. "We're useless at it. But Facebook and Twitter have such huge databases." So there might be a way of tweeting a bet? "I'm waiting to find out."

Whatever happens, Chandler did not get where he is today by letting the turf grow under his feet. He was born into a gambling dynasty: his grandfather opened Walthamstow Stadium, the now defunct dog track, in 1933, and his father, the original Victor Chandler, built up a large chain of betting shops following legalisation in 1961. The plan was never for Chandler to become a bookmaker too, but when his father died, he took the reins. He was only 22.

"And I struggled, early on. But my father had bought a chain of betting shops which also owned a firm of accountants, and a man called Joe Jason, who's long dead now, changed my life. He said, 'Do you know you're insolvent?' I said, 'What does that mean?' He said, 'You owe more than you've got.' I said, 'Can we get out of trouble?' He said, 'Wth hard work, yes'."

In 1977, a hugely lucrative Royal Ascot suggested that the hard work was paying off. But he was still a young man and there were still lessons to absorb. "The race that really taught me a lesson was Dawn Run [winning the 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup, with Jonjo O'Neill on board]. I didn't think he could win, and I lost more money than I should have done. It taught me not to be too opinionated. A couple of months later Jonjo O'Neill put the boots and whip up for sale and I bought them. I still have them on my wall to remind me not to be pig-headed."

It is sometimes hard for him to suppress his opinions, because horses have long been his principal sporting passion. He keeps a keen professional eye on all the main sports, and the company sponsors Nottingham Forest, but no sporting moment was sweeter for him than his horse Zaynar winning the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham three years ago, nor does any ambition burn more fiercely than that of owning a Gold Cup winner. His latest equine acquisitions, though, have been a disappointment. "I bought three at the start of this season and they're all useless. It's always the good ones who get injured and the bad ones who keep on eating."

He rides himself – is still learning to do dressage, in fact – and tells me a lovely story about his friend Lester Piggott (above), which segues easily into a story about George Best. Bookmaking has certainly afforded him some memorable company. His good pal Lucian Freud painted him (not in settlement of a gambling debt, as sometimes reported), and he talks beguilingly of "magical" evenings out with Freud, Francis Bacon and the famously dissolute Jeffrey Bernard. Not that there was anything magical about the time Bernard, having greatly overindulged, started throwing up violently outside the lifts at Newbury racecourse, only for the lift doors to open and the Queen Mother to emerge. Jeffrey Bernard was truly unwell that day, I venture. Chandler doesn't laugh. "It was," he says with feeling, "the most terrible moment."

So, Lester Piggott? "Yes, he last stayed with us in August, with his son Jamie, and I offered to take Jamie riding before it got too hot. He said, 'I'll come'. So I took him down to the stables and the groom looked at Lester and said to me, 'Can he ride?' Anyway, I like to do three hours, with a stop for breakfast. But it was one of those days in Spain when it gets so hot it's unbelievable, so we get back to the stable, and Lester's growling. He got off, said 'Don't ever fucking do that to me again' and walked away. I said, 'That's nice, you're a nice guest'."

This time Chandler does laugh, heartily. It sounds like the start of an earthquake. "Lester has a very good sense of humour, actually. I went to Hong Kong with him a couple of times, once with George Best, and we had so much fun, though not so much with George. We had 200 guests coming to one of the hotels for a thing with George, and part of his job was to sign 100 footballs and kick them into the audience. George arrived the night before, and a young guy, Michael, who'd just started with me, was sent to pick him up from the airport. I said, 'No drinking, make sure he behaves'. So he arrived pushing a luggage trolley, and our guy says, 'Mr Best, please allow me to take your trolley'. He said, 'Take that fucking trolley and I'll fall over'. He was completely pissed.

"The next day at the hotel we had all the footballs in a side office, and I said, 'He's not allowed out until he's signed all the balls, and whatever you do, don't let him near a bottle of Chablis.' Next thing, out of the corner of my eye, I see George with a bottle of wine in his hand and Michael running after him. Michael comes over and says, 'What shall I do?' I said, 'Go back in there and sign all the balls yourself.' So then the evening starts and George gets huge applause, and makes a fantastic speech, then collapses again. The next morning we wanted him on TV wearing a Victor Chandler T-shirt and he refused. He said, 'I've done enough for what you've paid me'."

Still, a recalcitrant George Best is one thing, bombs and bullets quite another. When Chandler went to check out the growing gambling culture in Macau in the mid-1990s, he found himself in the middle of the so-called Casino Wars between rival Chinese gangs. "At the heliport I got into a limo, and when I went to close the door I found I needed two hands. I said, 'Is this car bullet-proof?' The driver said, 'No sir, it's bomb-proof'. I went for supper and I was the only person not wearing a gun. It was extraordinary. The others there were all Chinese, and we drank the full range of Chateau Petrus, from the 1947 onwards, but they all added saccharine tablets, or lemonade."

Chandler shakes his head, in enduring disbelief. His bookmaking career might yet yield an odder experience than that evening in Macau, but I don't suppose he'd bet on it.