It’s been over three months since I last worked in a bookies. I’ve been in a few of my old shops since then, to say hello to colleagues and regulars, but this is the first time I’ve spent hours and hours in a shop. I can’t say I miss it, exactly, but it’s certainly a lot less unpleasant on the other side of the bandit screen.
My plan was to buddy up with a punter and see how they live for a week. It was hard to pick someone initially, because I don’t want to go for the guy with an obvious gambling problem and just write about him, because it seems too easy a stick to beat the industry with. On the other hand, this has got to be interesting, so I can’t just follow old Joe around, watching him putting his 5p Lucky 15s on and then sitting in the pub all day (I will be proposing this for next months’ Contributoria, though, Joe is fascinating), so I just decided to chat to the next bloke to walk in.
The thing that strikes me about the guy, who we’ll call John, is that he looks a lot like my dad. This endears him to me right away, but I don’t just jump on his back, I wait for him to get settled. A chorus of ‘alright John!’ and cheerful ‘hello, mates!’ greet him from the regulars, and the cashier behind the counter waves him over and they discuss the weather, the football, and someone puts a brew on for John. I know now that this is probably going to be a nice bloke to talk to.
He accepts the tea with a thank you (a rarity in a bookmakers) and settles down with a copy of the Racing Post. I’m reading a copy of my own, online, while I scribble some notes down on a plain slip. I’m half writing notes for this article, half checking out some horses. Despite my best efforts, I developed a mild interest in horse racing while working at Ladbrokes. It’s hard not to just through sheer osmosis. I found it was best to have some sort of knowledge because customers respected you more if you had even a veneer of interest or knowledge of the GGs.
John looks up at a virtual parade, the beautifully rendered downs of Portman Park shining in the CG sun, scribbles down the name of a non-existant horse and rushes to the counter. He comes back, then proceeds to shout at the screen, swearing, but in a nice, friendly way, at the performance of his pixelated pony.
“It’s all a fix, you know.” he offers.
“Well, it’s just random, isn’t it?” I reply.
He looks at me like I’m the world’s biggest idiot.
“How can it be random?”
I explain how virtual racing works. Each horse is assigned a number, and before the race, a number is picked at random. A race is then simulated in which that number’s horse wins the race.
“Well, yeah, obviously it’s random. I only play them because I need to have a bet.”
I ask him if he’d call himself an addict.
“I think if you’re in a bookies at 10 o’clock in the morning, there’s probably something wrong with you.” he laughs at that, and I laugh, and I take to this guy immediately.
“What about you?” he points at my pile of betting slip notes. I’m torn now. Do I tell him I’m writing a story? It was a pain trying to find people to talk to for the last story. It’s understandable, I wouldn’t want my problems splashed out across the internet, and I probably wouldn’t trust some random guy claiming to be a writer. I decide to tell him, though, as it’s early enough that if he loses his rag, I can always find someone else in the four other bookies on this small, suburban high street.
“I’m a writer and amateur gambler. I stick to horses and football mostly.”
His eyes light up a bit and we discuss football. He’s a West Brom fan, I’m a Villa fan, so we spend a decent chunk of time talking about how awful our teams are. He talks about big football bets he’s had in the past, I talk about the time I got a 6 team accumulator at odds of around 500/1, but only put a penny on it.
“Why the fuck would you only put a penny on it?”
His face has turned a bit, he’s giving me a hard stare, like I’ve thrown away the biggest chance of success any human will ever have.
“It was just a throwaway bet to use my last penny on my online account. I didn’t think it would actually win.”
He softens a bit.
“Well, a win’s a win, mate, a win’s a win.”
More talk of near wins and huge losses. I ask him how long he’s been gambling.
“All my life, mate. My dad couldn’t get out much as he got older, but he was really into the horses, so he would send me to the bookies to put his bets on. This was back when everything was done by hand and in your head, no computers, everyone smoked. I loved it and I was soon going in on my own.”
“Were you underage?”
“Yeah, but I’ve always looked older than I am, so there was no problem getting in. There wasn’t as much concern about youngsters getting in back then.”
“Would kids even want to come in back then?”
“I suppose not.”
When I was a kid, the bookies wasn’t really on my radar. There was a time when a bookies couldn’t have any windows and the shops were basically a mystery to me. I hadn’t even stepped foot in one before successfully applying for a job at Ladbrokes, so it was a surprise to me when I walked into one and it was actually lovely inside. No smoke, sunlight streaming in, nice comfy seats, free food and drink, it was like a cafe, but full of people pissing away all their money and shouting a lot. We talk about how much things have changed.
“Yeah, they’re nicer, but there isn’t much of a community feel any more. You used to come in and there’d be all sorts of people here. You’d have old people, young people, when I grew up it was a mixing pot, a lot of Afro-Caribbean people would be here, it was the best place to socialise, make a few quid, and have a good time. I made all my friends here, I learned all sorts of things. Now, look at it.”
He waves his arm over an almost empty shop. He points at the machines.
“It’s been shite ever since they came in.”
“Do you ever play them?”
“I used to. I still do, yeah, but not as much as I did. There was a time when I was putting all my money in them. They’re the worst, brought out the worst in me.”
I should add, throughout all this, I’ve been trying not to cough up my lungs. I’ve been ill since December, so it really annoys me that I have to cut things short, because I’m finding it hard to talk. I ask him if he’s going to be around, and he promises he’ll be in the next day.
Thankfully he is.
Initially he’s not as chatty as he was the day before. I’d showed him some stuff I’d written on my phone, and he was very polite about reading it, but basically skimmed most of them. He was concerned I was going to make him look like “an idiot” or a “hopeless addict”.
“What are you writing about this for?”
“My last article was about life behind the counter, I just wanted to see what it was like on the other side. Like, what’s your daily routine?”
“Okay. So, I’m in here pretty much open ’til close. I don’t work any more, I do a bit of driving work…” he trails off here, winks, which I assume means he does a bit of work off the books, cash in hand.
“There was a time when I could make all the money I needed in here, but then I started putting it all in the fruit machines, then the roulette, and I lost it all.”
He doesn’t have a wedding ring, but I ask about family anyway. I’d mentioned I was getting married myself later in the year and his eyes light up, he seemed to be genuinely interested in talking about me and family stuff.
“No, no wife or kids. A few girlfriends, but I’m a pretty distrustful person. I mostly just come here, go home, eat, sleep, then come back here.”
“Do you enjoy this?”
He pauses. I don’t know if someone has ever bothered asking him about this. His story isn’t really unique. I’d met lots of customers like this. Most of them were about his age, and they’d either retired, or lost a partner, and this was their life now. My initial reaction was to think ‘god, what a loser’, but if they’re keeping their gambling under control, who am I to judge? I used to spend an embarrassingly long time sitting in the dark playing the Football Manager video games. I would honestly spend 6-8 hour periods of time playing that spreadsheet simulator, and I wasn’t getting out of the house, I wasn’t speaking to other people, so who am I to judge? Was he keeping in control, though?
“I don’t know if I enjoy it, really. It’s better than doing nothing. I don’t really have hobbies. This is my hobby, my job, I suppose.”
A shout comes from the end of the shop with the FOBTs. A guy in a trackie and ill-fitting baseball cap is pushing chairs over and shouting about the roulette cheating him. Apparently the game has frozen and has decided to take his frustration out on the furniture.
“Did you ever get angry like that?” I ask, tempering the question with a chuckle.
He laughs, scratches his head, the look of a man who is about to say something embrarrsing.
“Yeah, of course. I’ve probably said some vile things to staff and the lads around me, but you’ve got to understand what happens when you’re losing money. You’re loading cash in, note after note, and you don’t win anything. You watch other people win and you get frustrated that you’re not getting anything. You can shovel in hundreds and not win, you know it has to pay out, that it’s supposed to pay out, but it doesn’t.”
“But you’re not guaranteed to win, are you? It doesn’t matter how much you put in, it’s still random.”
“It doesn’t feel random. It doesn’t feel random at times. I played blackjack for a bit, but that game is obviously rigged.”
I tell him about customers having a go at me for pressing the fabled lose button while they play. He laughs again, then apologises.
“I’m not that fucking stupid. I don’t actually believe that, but sometimes you get on a streak and it feels like the whole world is against you. I had to stop playing because it was stressing me out too much.”
“But you do still play?”
“Occasionally. I like to bet on everything.”
We chat about all the things he bets on. He’s not joking. If there’s a market, he’ll bet on it. We chat about the Oscars and how he bets on that. I mention how Ladbrokes once had a market about Irn-Bru. He finds that ridiculous, but explains he probably would’ve had a punt on it if he’d known about it.
“Would you bet on chess?”
“Do you know anything about chess?”
“Why bother betting on it, then?”
“Sometimes you just need a bet. It’s not like I bet thousands and thousands of pounds. I don’t have thousands. I’ll maybe put £50 on a dog. Here, look.”
He pulls out his wallet, takes £50 in tens out, scribbles a random dog down on a slip, and takes it to the counter.
“How did you choose the dog? You’ve not checked the form or anything.”
“I just get a feel for a dog. If it wins, I get money for the rest of the day to bet on lots of stuff. If it loses, I go back to small stakes.”
This seems like a really bad way to fund your bets, but I don’t mention that. We watch the race and his dog barely leaves its trap. It limps to fifth place. He gently crumples up the slip and throws it toward a bin, barely missing. At least he tried. There is no anger, no shouting. I tell him I can’t understand how he can do that.
“Fifty quid is a lot of money to me. I can’t imagine even betting that amount, let alone betting it on a dog and acting so calm afterward.”
“Fifty quid’s a lot of money to me too, but a bet’s a bet. You just move on to the next.”
I don’t understand him, but the more time I spend with him, the more I see him bet like this. He’s so philosophical about it, and I can’t understand. My max stakes during all this is about £1, with a 10p each-way yankee (£2.20) being my most extravagant bet. Still, I did promise that I was going to put £100 into a machine. I ask him for his advice.
“Don’t do it.”
“You’re a wuss.”
We laugh, but I know he’s right.
“Okay, how about we start with a tenner and go from there?”
He agrees and we head on over to the FOBTs. At this point the angry young man from earlier has departed, but the furniture and mess is still here. I clean it up, because I still feel like a cashier and don’t want a non-existent area manager to have a pop at me because of a fallen pen. John mocks me for this, rightfully so.
We skip through the machine limits and I stick a tenner in. I immediately feel apprehensive and slightly ill. The missus knows I’m doing this, but she’s still going to be pretty annoyed about it. I flick around the various games, killing time.
“Just pick one.”
“Alright, alright, don’t rush me. This is real money, you know.”
I decide to go with a normal game of roulette. Nothing premium, no added bonuses, no Noel Edmonds greeting me for Deal or No Deal roulette, no slots roulette, just 0-36. I pick the lowest stakes and pick some random numbers. I ask for John’s input.
“I didn’t really have a system. Everyone says they have a system, but it’s all bollocks, I think.” His ‘I think’ actually sounds like he isn’t entirely sure there isn’t a system. We talk about how the game is designed, how the zero is green, making it seem different, special.
“Oh, yeah, you’ve always got to back zero.”
“Why?” I ask, putting a few chips on zero.
“I don’t know. I just get really annoyed when it lands on zero and I haven’t backed it.”
“But there’s the same chance of it landing on zero as it landing on any other number.”
At this point a guy on a nearby machine, who I didn’t even notice, interrupts.
“Nah, boss, you gotta back zero. It comes up more often.” He points at his screen, which shows the last ten numbers that have been drawn. Zero has come up three times in the last ten. I decide now is not the best time to argue statistics and probability.
I spin and lose. I feel sick. I mean, I am sick, but now I feel worse. This is so pointless. How does anyone enjoy this?
“Ask me that when you eventually win.”
I spin again. I lose again. Nope, not feeling it.
I spin again. A win! A pretty decent win, in fact, and I’ve almost won all my money back. He’s right, this does feel good, so I spin again. I’m mentally totting up how much I’ve staked, how much I’ve lost and won. I’m doing mental gymnastics trying to justify each new spin.
I’ve lost this one, but if I get a good win on the next one, I might get back up to even.
I spin. I lose.
I spin. I lose.
I spin. I’m out of money.
“Stick another tenner in.”
I stick another tenner in. A few wins, but mostly losses. I stick to the same numbers every time, despite the protests of John and the random guy. They insist, almost demand that I have to change things up, acting like I’m an idiot for not doing so. They call numbers out. A few times it lands on the ones they shout and they shoot me knowing looks. I don’t mention the fact that the random guy hasn’t won since I got here.
This continues until I’m £40 in the hole and I’ve triggered a 30 minute alert. Where did those 30 minutes go? A member of staff comes over to explain the machine limits. I explain I’m okay and know about it, they sigh in relief, and go back to the counter to stare at the screens. I tell John that I’m done. I decide I don’t want to put the whole £100 in.
“Don’t you have to?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t feel comfortable with this. I don’t feel comfortable how quickly time has passed and how much money I’ve spent. I’ve probably put more money in this machine today than I have gambling in general in the last six months. How is this fun for you?”
“It’s not, until you hit that win. It’s all about the rush, and getting the next one.”
“So it’s like drugs?”
He looks aghast, like I’ve just accused him of something terrible.
“I wouldn’t know. I just know that it doesn’t really matter how much I win or lose, it’s just about getting that win. You chase and hope for a bigger one, but really, the win is all that matters. If I lose nowadays, that’s fine, but if I’ve won…”
He trails off, trying to find the words.
“Does it make it worth all the losses?” I offer.
“Yeah. It’s great. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, this is my vice, and it’s something I enjoy.”
We head away from the machines and go back to the horse section. During my time with him, he’s always insisted that he has fun, that this is what he likes doing. I don’t completely buy it, but then, I imagine he wouldn’t believe me when I told him I used to have fun spending all my hours pretending to be a football manager, or shooting mutants in post-apocalyptic video games.
We have more little bets, but I don’t go back to the machines. I admit, there was a high, a rush whenever I won, but it was hollow. Betting on the horses or football, you’re at least putting some sort of thought into it. I’m not claiming to be an expert, of course, but there’s something to be said for the jolt of joy when you look through the form, find a 10/1 shot, back it, and it comes in. You feel like a genius, you feel like you’ve put one over the bookies. When I won at roulette, it was just random, despite what anyone says. I’m not trying to say that one form of gambling is superior to another, it’s just what I’d prefer to do. I still think a lot of over the counter betting is ridiculous. I will never understand the types of customers who exclusively back virtual racing, especially the ones who shout at the screen, as is their words will have influence, as if there’s any drama to be had beyond the random fate of a randomly generated number.
I’m not brilliant or particularly smart for not falling for all the psychological tricks the game designers try and pull on the punters, I just know a little bit about probability. I imagine the industry would probably collapse if customers had a brief explanation of things like probability or statistics.
I know the computer doesn’t care if the numbers are green, red or black, it’s going to randomly pick any one and simulate a spinning wheel. John and the random guy kept pointing out how the ball almost landed on my number, how the direction of the spin affected things, how it was a con, how it was a rig, how legally the ball has to do this, how legally the wheel has to spin this way or that.
It’s draining trying to deal with it. It’s a bit like talking to conspiracy theorists online about the moon landing, or 9/11. It doesn’t matter what proof you provide that they’re talking bollocks, or that they’re being paranoid, this is just how their brain works.
I don’t pity him or judge him. I spend my money on booze, crisps and video games. He spends his on gambling and very little else. He may not have the tight-knit community he once had as a youngster, but he still has somewhere to go. Just like my old customers who I used to like. The bookies was their community centre. A twisted cafe where you can spend your money and your time. It’s a shame that the FOBTs and the amount of shops everywhere has destroyed this. I can imagine in the future finding an old-fashioned bookies somewhere quite nice to kill a few hours when the missus is out. Maybe it would’ve been nice, but as it is now, mostly empty, with the loudest people also being the angriest, I feel like this week is probably the longest I’m going to spend in one.
I think I prefer Football Manager.