Place your bets: the arts have become a national sport

We will hear about fluctuations in the odds, but how are these odds initially set?
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The Independent Online

When I was arts correspondent of this paper, one of the more diverting parts of the job was giving betting odds at the end of a story about a possible new appointment at a national arts institution. As someone who enjoyed an occasional flutter, I would take great care in deciding whether Sam Mendes should be 5-1 or 11-2 to take over at the National Theatre.

Now, arts betting is a national sport. Every major arts prize attracts interest from the bookmakers, but the most bet-upon arts event is the Booker Prize. Ladbroke's and William Hill actually have representatives at the shortlist announcement, delivering their odds as the Booker chairman names the shortlisted authors, and they issue regular press releases on Booker betting. It was one of these the other week, just before the shortlist announcement, which made me a little suspicious of the whole process. One of the big bookmaking firms issued a story about how few people were betting on Martin Amis. They had received only £16.70 in bets, they said. I couldn't help but wonder how that rogue 70p got there. People who bet usually do so in pounds or, very occasionally, the odd 50 pence. But why 70p? The only answer is that someone rushed into the betting shop, emptied their pockets at the counter and gasped: "I'm putting my last 70p on Martin." Perhaps it was Mrs Amis.

With the Booker Prize final judging nearly upon us, we will hear more than once in the next couple of weeks about fluctuations in the odds. But how are these odds initially set? Ron Pollard, the man who created betting on the Booker (and indeed on party political leadership contests), once told me how he tried to get inside the judges' minds and also how he equated novelists to jockeys to help him to decide.

Kingsley Amis he described as the Lester Piggott of novelists. No undignified 70p for Amis Snr. Mr Pollard had a fair run of success, though he once admitted missing a Booker Prize winner in Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac, which he made a 6-1 outsider because, as he told me at the time, "I didn't think it had the intellectual structure to win. It's a book that if you were going on holiday you would say to your wife 'pack that for the aeroplane'."

Things, I imagined, had grown rather more sophisticated, and I assumed that now the gentleman from the big bookmaking firms scoured The Bookseller magazine or nobbled publishers in dark wine bars for inside info. But in fact these odds upon which newspapers base stories and always quote scrupulously are calculated in a no more scientific way than they were in Mr Pollard's day.

The haphazard nature of laying the odds is admitted in a new book of essays about the Booker Prize which, as I have noted here before, is sadly not for sale but has been sent to school libraries, where it is unlikely to be disturbed too often. In this book Graham Sharpe of William Hill, who describes himself as a "literary layer", claims that he actually reads all the books on the longlist, but that's totally irrelevant as he has to lay the odds before he has time to read even one. He blames the media for this haste. They, he says, "don't seem capable of deciding who should be the front-runner on their own".

Last year, he made Howard Jacobson the initial favourite on the grounds that he was "pretty much the only one capable of getting a laugh or two out of his readers".

Sadly, Howard, my Independent colleague, didn't make the shortlist. Most interestingly, Mr Sharpe reveals that among the punters on the Booker are PRs for the publishers or authors, figuring that a relatively modest investment could reap rewards in terms of a rapid leap forward in the betting hierarchy, thus stimulating media coverage.

I hadn't thought of that. Maybe that desperate 70p came from an office junior at Martin Amis's publishers. By the time of the Booker Prize ceremony some real money will have been staked, and the odds will reflect what punters think is the best novel of the year, or perhaps what they think the judges will think is the best novel of the year, or perhaps they will just reflect how much publishers' PRs have to spend to get their authors press coverage. For the moment we should not take too much notice of the fact that Monica Ali is a short-priced 5-2 with William Hill. It's possible that this is because she managed to make Mr Sharpe laugh. Me, I'm putting my shirt on Margaret Atwood, even though she can't even get me to giggle.

¿ The Lister Experiment, which aims to attract new audiences to theatre by offering tickets for selected performances at low prices, has had several successes over the past year. Now Paul Roberts, producer of the Queen musical We Will Rock You, and a strong supporter of my scheme, has decided to mark the first anniversary of the experiment by offering best seats at £11.50 for the performance on Tuesday 2 December. Those wishing to buy tickets at the special price should call the box office at the Dominion Theatre in London (0870 169 0116) and quote the Lister Experiment. The campaign for cheaper theatre tickets continues.