How the betting industry is still skewing the odds

“When the fun stops, STOP” – the words you’ll find emblazoned across the walls in your local bookmakers. The message is important: betting is supposed to be the lazy weekend pastime of the average Brit. With the emergence of online gambling and the liberalisation of gambling laws under the Blair Government, the average UK household now spends £166 a year betting. But are punters being swindled by the power of the bookies?

The ethical problems with gambling have long been acknowledged; addiction in the UK is a very real problem, with an alarmingly positive distribution to those who are most in need. Such is the prevalence of betting addiction that Labour unveiled their plans in 2017 to introduce a levy on bookmakers in order to fund NHS treatment of gambling addicts. Naltrexone, a drug regularly used to treat alcohol and narcotic addiction, has seen a large rise in prescriptions to treat gambling addictions.

With addiction a possible end result, many would ask why even start betting? Why allow yourself to jump on a train that could potentially result in financial ruin? For some it is an allure similar to the lottery. Placing one pound on a bet that could return a few thousand is understandably exciting. For the regular punter who falls victim to the accumulator, the odds are already stacked massively against them. The bookmakers set their odds so that they have a margin of up to 30% on each event – multiply this a few times and the expected outcome is extremely favourable for the firm. It’s little wonder that accumulators are advertised to the upteenth degree.

There is another kind of bettor however; one that the bookmakers hate. Punters that seek value in their odds are not welcomed by most UK bookies. “Value” is deemed to exist where the expected outcome of an event happening is greater than the implied odds offered by the bookmaker. For example, Betfair are offering 11/10 for Barcelona to beat Chelsea in their Champions League match this Tuesday. This implies an event probability of 47.65%. If you believe that the likelihood of Barcelona winning is greater than this, then it makes sense to place a bet. Over a large sample of bets, this tactic of “value” betting will likely see you make a profit. The problem is, (and this is where the ethics of bookmakers is again called into question), bookies have savvy algorithms that will highlight bettors that consistently place bets on value. Once you are deemed to be an unprofitable customer, the bookmaker will likely limit the amount you can bet (often down to 1p), or ban you completely from making bets with them.

This then begs the question, why even start betting? Of course, you could get lucky, someone has to win the lottery, or you may not mind taking odds that are massively stacked against you. In the short term, too, you can escape the bookies with smart bets and make a run with your money before you are found out. It does however seem unfair that bookmakers are allowed to dismiss customers that will not make them a profit; there certainly are not many other industries where this is the case. Indeed, if you find yourself in the exhilarating corners of the web where betting forums exist, there are many petitions and conversations devoted to removing this practice.

The crux of the issue, however, is that bookmakers would have to significantly alter their business models if they were to survive whilst accepting all types of bettors. The power of those dependent on the industry is too great for any major change to be likely in the near future. The irony is that bookmakers actively promote the act of betting with one’s brain – in a recent advert Ladbrokes labelled punters “heroes” whilst encouraging the type of value bettor so hated labelled as “the professor”. My advice, don’t fall for the trap.