Which Bookmaker Are You?


Despite appearances, not all bookmakers are the same. Today on the blog Stephen asks, which bookmaker are you?


As the bookmaking world has evolved, various new breeds have emerged, many fighting an uphill battle for survival in an increasingly competitive and bureaucratic world. Here we examine the ten different types of bookmakers that operate in 2013.

1- The Dominant Big Arcade Owners

The rich always get richer, while the poor whither and die. This has been true in the past decade as the "big three" of Hills, Corals and Ladbrokes have grown bigger and bigger, buying up shops and expanding their enormous empire on the high street. They have been joined by the upstarts at Paddy Power and Betfred and now have proliferated across the UK, focussing often in the poorest areas where social security money is flushed around an ever-increasing number of gaming machines.

These firms obviously create massive employment, and there is little doubt that the betting experience is now largely a clean and safe one, no longer conducted in smokey, illicit betting shops. Modern technology dominates, with a large plethora of high tech screens and every facility imaginable to tempt customers towards high margin roulette/games. Their "traditional product" of horse and greyhound racing is now secondary, unattractive because of its low margins and costly in terms of levy and taxation.

2- The Website Revolutionaries

Bet365 are the classic example of this explosion on the web, with BetVictor hard on their heels as the example of a slick, modern and safe pioneering bookmaker on the web. They are miles ahead of their more established, traditional rivals, having spent many millions getting a state of the art site with live pictures and hundreds of betting opportunities a minute.

Many punters are frustrated by the limited stakes available to them (especially if they are marked up as "hot" or an "arber" at an early stage of their betting experience), but there is little doubt that things have improved dramatically in this more recently. As the traders confidence in their site has grown, (and no doubt the turnover, helped by massive advertising campaigns), the size of bets available has definitely increased (particular on products such as football where there is a well established market).

This is the future of betting in a cashless society, and those that have got in first are reaping the benefits and racing ahead of their old "shop based" rivals.

3- The One Man Shop...a dying breed of independents

This used to be a common site on the high street, but he is very much in danger of extinction as the multiples crush the life out of these entrepreneurs. The spiralling costs of SIS and the Gambling Commission, mean that economies of scale are very much against these "go it alone" merchants, and only those with a long established loyal customer base have managed to weather the storm and scratch out a living against all the odds.

The old bookmaker sat in a smokey shop is an iconic image with the punters pitting their wits and cash against the "enemy", a very compelling idea. Near where I live there was one such example of this (it is now a William Hills), where Bill Adams was a local figure of much talk and plotting. A small army of regulars frequented a tiny shop, scouring the Sporting Life on the walls to study the form and try and sort out a life changing yankee to bankrupt the owner.

Now the shop is effectively an "arcade", full of loud machines chugging and bleeping as sallow faced youth's knock out their weekly dole money in rapid fashion. The form may still be on the walls, but these are not betting shops in the old sense of the word. There is no brainpower, thought or plotting. The daily sport is no longer a crossword puzzle to be solved, but rather a "quick fix" is chased and encouraged, with the odds massively tilted against the punter.

4- The Betfair Arbitrage Merchant

Many on-course bookies are now pure arbers offering prices at less than the "Betfair price" to a gullible public, and immediately putting the bet straight back on at the bigger price on their computer behind the joint. These vampires have sucked the life out of the game and are thankfully now dying a rapid death, as they find collapsing turnover making their business "plan" non-viable.

Their actions have sucked the life (and cash) out of the betting ring, frequently not laying prices they have offered on the board as it dips below that on the exchange and alienated a whole breed of punters who now have no desire to bet on-course. The advent of mobile/tablet access to Betfair and bookmaker websites, has largely meant their profitability is wiped out, and the more astute players have no need to bet with them at all.

5- The "Silver Spoon" On-Course Bookmaker

"He was lucky his Dad was born first" is a valid criticism of some of the bookmakers left on-course. They are often based in prime pitches, living off the old family name and commanding a loyal band of "mug" punters that have fed the family for generations. Often they are critical of the "impossibly generous" prices that new upstart bookmakers offer, and frequently take a keen interest in the politics of the sport but it is from a privileged position and one of self interest, rather than the greater good of the sport itself.

In fairness, these are often men of substance who have stood the test of time, and are willing to lay a thick bet (if the price is right, or available at bigger elsewhere) and are usually found in the members bar, swilling champagne and trying to ingratiate themselves with a future millionaire customer.

6- The Grafter And Survivor

These on-course operators have been there, done that. They have numerous pitches up and down the country, work hard and spend thousands of hours a year travelling to do business. Such an operator is a shrewd cookie, willing to stand his opinions within set guidelines and playing to the strength of his turnover. He makes himself a good living each year, embracing Betfair without being a slave to it, offering fair each-way terms and building up a loyal clientele through decent customer service. Unlike the growing breed of "weekend hobby" bookmakers, out for some fresh air and trying to nick £100, this is very much a serious business.

Such true professionals have no outside income (even the legendary Freddie Williams had a million pound water business behind him), and often employ their entire family in the business. John White or Ross and Son are good examples in the South, while in the more "vibrant" North, (where turnover seems to have stood up much better through the economic downturn) there are numerous examples of individual operators who are still winning the unequal struggle.

7- The Old School Proper Bookmaker

The late Colin Webster, Dudley Roberts or Johnny Ridley are classic examples of a rare breed of gentleman bookmaker, many of which can still be found on our racecourses. Their longevity is a tribute to an understanding of the business, an acute sense of value and a superb judgement of character. They survived the knockers, the flimpers and the arrival of Betfair into the market, and were also people about whom a bad word would never be said.

These gentleman gave the ring a reputation for honesty and straightforwardness that was the bedrock for its success over the past century, and many would now be appalled at the antics of the modern breed of layer.

8- The Overseas Based, Fly By Night Unregulated Internet Operators

Many firms have set up on the internet and perished, unable to make a profit in a low margin arena and drowned out by spiralling costs, both in terms of technology and taxation. These companies, such as the notorious Luvbet, are best avoided by all punters, and there is little doubt that some "zombie" firms are still out there, kept alive by the deposits that customers keep in their accounts rather than any operating profit the company may make.

These "fly by night" operators are desperate to attract cash by attractive offers of free bets, matching deposits and "100% bonuses" in the casinos but are often run by unscrupulous owners and offer dire standards of largely unregulated customer service. Basically if it looks too good to be true, it probably is and punters are recommended to steer well clear.

9- The Crash And Burn Merchants

T and F at Walthamstow are a recent example of a bookmaker who fell by the wayside after swimming with the sharks. These firms often appear from nowhere, playing big and offering attractive prices, but very rarely stay the trip and often leave a trail of destruction behind them when it goes wrong.

New bookmakers have found out the hard way that making steady books, playing consistently and not being dictated to by "big hitters" is the only way to survive long term. The "take a view" merchants who knew better than the invincible machine (Betfair) have long since gone by the wayside, steamrollered by arbers or the ever growing army of well informed professional backers. Often these "bookmakers" were the worst kind of mug punter, anxious to chase the adrenalin rush of playing far too big every race, standing the favourite for more and more in a bid to "get out" on the day.

10- The Family Business

These days with cost control the main problem facing any bookmaking business, the ones that thrive are those which are family operations. As illustrated by Steve Joel at Hove dogs, or Bill Dyer at the point to points in the South, a husband and wife team can be an effective operation. There is no need for a tictac or a bagman in these straightened times, and firms have had to adapt in order to carry on grafting a living.

Paid full time staff are simply a luxury that very few can now afford, and the mechanisation of prices has meant that a computer and a spouse is all that the modern on-course bookmaker requires.



Follow Stephen on Twitter: @Stephenh61

Racing Editor for bettingexpert. Always searching for winners against the crowd and trying to find the value.