Snookered by the bookies

The world of off-course betting is changing faster than the odds on a bookmaker's board. An activity that was once the preserve of the derided, to be conducted in seedy premises on the outskirts of town, is being normalised like any other leisure pursuit. The windows of betting shops are opening on to a once-suspicious public and betting booths are familiar sights at leading sporting events, usually run by one of the big three bookmakers, Coral's, Hill's and Ladbroke's.

It was the bookmakers' trade body, the Betting Office Licensees Association (Bola), that released details of "unusual betting patterns" on the Embassy World Championship snooker match between Jimmy White and Peter Francisco, leading to an inquiry by the snooker authorities. The sums of money were by no means enormous - Hill's, with around 1,600 shops, plus the booths at the Crucible, Sheffield, reported liabilities "nearer five figures than four," but the fact that concerns were expressed before the event has added spice to claims of corruption.

Bola has called the integrity of snooker into question and hence, by association, that of the players involved, although the connection of White with any form of cheating is as repugnant as it is implausible.

The bookmakers, more than anybody, should be aware that in betting the oxygen of publicity is often poisoned. So what of their integrity? The suspicion is that Bola's vigilance in the area of corruption - and there are few more vigilant breeds of men than the bookmakers - says more about its members than it does about those it is questioning.

The amount bet on the sport, though growing, is marginal: witness the Hill's liability. In fact, snooker is a sport where thousands of matches are played without a hint of suspicion, so why the hysteria over this one event?

Maybe the answer lies in collective guilt over our enslavement to gambling, from Ladbroke's to the National Lottery. We cannot hide the dark side of betting. Betting has always attracted its share of cheats and always will; its ethics will always be questionable. For somebody to win, somebody else must lose.

Betting will never be tasteful (witness the Government's risible hopes for the Lottery) and it will never be totally straight. Straight enough, but there are bends in the cue. It might be better for the bookmakers to acknowledge this rather than throw up their hands in a display of collective bad faith whenever they are taken by surprise.

The writer was chairman of the National Association for the Protection of Punters until last month.