A few weeks back, I wrote a piece on racing and the data revolution, an article that to my mind had little or nothing to do with bookmaker restrictions. The response to the blog surprised me as it provoked a rash of comments about bookies restricting punters so I’ve decided to return to that issue as a separate matter now.
There are those that tell us that the subject of restrictions concerns only a small minority of punters and by extension people. I disagree. There is an aspect of social justice at play here and companies behaving unethically will always interest the mainstream, regardless of whether they are bettors or not. Bookmakers have become ubiquitous in modern life; odds are everywhere and having a bet is becoming more socially acceptable where once it was not. If nothing else, that is a credit to the PR teams of the major firms.
However, we do have to ask: what are we allowing into our lives? Bookies sell the chance of making a profit, but are the promises of winning hollow? There seems to be a rising tide of questioning if not open opposition to bookmakers in the media of late, from the Final Furlong Podcast to Kevin Blake of ATR and perhaps most notably Aaron Rogan of The London Times (paywall) which suggests the debate is about to be opened up.
Reasonable discussion on this topic is difficult. It is a complex area but more than that both sides are deeply entrenched, the Republicans and the Democrats in the United States cordial in comparison. I can bookie bash with the best of them and have done in the past but it’s pointless: I don’t think anyone wants to read about the clichés of bean-counting accountants or the cancer of FOBTs. Bookmakers do have a side to tell too in this partisan debate and while it is hard for them to present a unified voice – different firms have vastly different attitudes to risk – it is at least worth acknowledging their perspective.
Bookmaker black ops are a fascinating part of this issue. From the punter’s side of the divide, there is so much we don’t know about the dark arts used to monitor and restrict customers so some of this is necessarily vague. The firms rightly use methods to prevent fraud like slow counting but there is bound to be a huge grey area between using the technology available for limiting crime and using it to trap winning punters. This can be achieved relatively easily online as Matt pointed out in an excellent recent piece on IESnare (recommended reading if you haven’t already done so) while systems like OpenBet can monitor and limit stakes.
It is in the shops that things really get interesting though as security cameras, facial recognition and handwriting analysis are all open to use and misuse. None of this is to suggest that punters are squeaky clean; they are anything but. From ghost accounts to commission agents to arbing to bad each-way races, bettors have used them all but one is conditioned to take the side of the single underdog against large corporate powers. I do believe that there is the exposé of all exposés to come on dodgy practices in the bookmaking industry if a journalist can get an insider to go on the record; everything from the baiting of losing customers, to money laundering, to underage betting could be hiding under the rock.
There is an argument to be made about the ethics of laying a bet and whether or not a bookmaker should feel a moral imperative to allow a decent stake. At least, I think there is, but other punters tell me that you can’t apply emotion and feeling to business. Bookmakers, like any company, can argue their primary loyalty has to be with shareholders and providing as much profit as possible. Researching this in an Irish context, I found that the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement here states that ‘[company] directors must exercise their power in good faith and in the interests of the company as a whole.’
This is suitably vague but those in charge of the big bookmaking firms have applied it to mean they should maximise profit now over the long-term health of betting on racing. And we can be in no doubt that restrictions do impact racing; people become disillusioned with them and, in turn, the sport. This might point to there being no such thing as ethical capitalism and perhaps laying limits need to be legislated for as part of license application. The bus company that applies for privatised routes may have to satisfy legislative requirements to continue to run some unprofitable services along with the more valuable parts of the pie so why not the same for bookies?
Bookmakers do have a solid argument for restrictions though. Racing is one of the sports where wild fluctuations in odds can take place; we have all seen instances of a debutante being backed from 20/1 to 7/2 from a yard not known for prepping runners first time out. This doesn’t really apply when punters are playing both sides of an NFL over/under total and a massive swing is two and a half points either way. A lot of this comes back to data and integrity, and Irish racing are world leaders in neither, sadly.
I can sympathise with the bookmaker that finds themselves with a one or two horse market on an Irish race, as is often the case, and they are left with a totally lop-sided book; this is far from bookmaking in the traditional sense. A cynic could of course argue that poor initial pricing of the race was the problem and bookmakers deserve to be punished at least to some degree; their odds compilers, if indeed they have any, have missed something that punters have spotted. So often, modern bookmaking firms are much better at risk management than odds compiling.
A further problem bookmakers run into when left with a big bet or multiple running up is that they have no real avenue to have the bet away; hedging accounts provide some respite but someone is always left carrying the can whereas the Betfair market close to the off may see the price having totally collapsed. A further problem that may develop here, albeit infrequently, is that the big loser in the book is disqualified and the bookmaker is caught on the hook for paying double result; punters may have no sympathy for the big firms in this regard but what of the smaller independent? Double result has a lot to answer for as it is part of the wider bonus culture that has eroded margins and played a part in increasing restrictions, the genie seemingly having escaped from the bottle here.
So is there a way forward? I’m probably not qualified to answer that, but there are certainly some small things that could be done to improve things and it’s basically a list of bookmakers eradicating ‘punter irritants’. For instance, the quoting of massive bets in the media grinds on any winning punter, and that they are unsubstantiated even more so; they are just an unnecessary annoyance.
So too is having a bet knocked back and the price remaining the same: take the bet (or some of it) and move the odds. Technology has been a vital tool in the bookies’ war against the winning punter but there has to be a place for more human common sense; it is intensely frustrating when a punter looks for a bet of €30 and is knocked to €28.57. I know it’s a computer algorithm at work but wouldn’t it just be simpler to allow the full bet and reduce the level of punter ire?
An area that bookmakers need to consider is the restricting of recreational, and by that I largely mean non-winning, punters. The feeling abroad is that too many of these punters are being caught in the limits net and while they may hit on the odd gem or springer in the market, their overall pattern is a losing one. Surely these are just the sort of gamblers – let’s call them the 80% to 95% group in terms of return on stakes – worth having on the books.
One firm that does deserve a little praise is Coral. They drew more than their share of criticism in my initial article on racing data but their new position on laying horses in good class races to lose up to £2,000 after 11am in shops can only be a good one. That allows for a reasonable bet at a time when prices have settled down and I hope that they get the benefit of being first movers on this rather than having their heads blown off, as an extension of the guarantee to other bookmakers – and, dare I say it, online betting – would be excellent.