The Evolution of Betting

My name is David Underwood, I’m 47, and I’ve been a professional gambler for a large portion of my life. From an early age I was fascinated by gambling; in my family we often played a card game for pennies called Queens, while the flashing lights of fruit machines always entranced me as a small child.
By the time I got to high school I realised I could make money out of gambling and made my own football cards. I also created betting slips out of carbon paper and took football bets off my classmates as well as playing pontoon and brag most dinner times.
I left school and went to work in sales, betting unprofitably at the time on the horses (although at one point I was actually putting bets on for legendary gambler Alex Bird via my boss). From the age of 25 to 38 I managed betting offices for an independent company. It was a job I enjoyed for many years but as the industry changed and the hours lengthened I grew to dislike the job. We were taken over by Totesport and I grasped the chance firmly, quickly finding a job at the head office as a general sports trader.
Over the next eight years I worked my way up to senior football trader, and when we were taken over by Betfred in 2011 I took voluntary redundancy, receiving a very satisfactory redundancy package which became my bankroll for making a living as a professional gambler.
In recent times my focus has changed; ever since the first series of Pop Idol I have made money gambling on reality TV and during my time at Totesport became the reality TV odds compiler to add to my trading duties. With the help of a colleague we turned a traditionally losing market for the firm into one making a 30%+ profit on stakes which allowed us to expand the shows we bet on and the stakes we were allowed to take.
Nowadays I bet heavily on reality TV and make a healthy profit, with X Factor being easily my biggest cash cow. I also trade greyhounds (I own three), horses and football to make up the money.

Obviously in the early days there was no internet and no debit cards, so if you wanted a bet you either needed a credit account with one of the major bookmakers where you could ring up and place a bet or you needed to trudge down to the nearest betting shop.
A trip to the betting shop was a very different experience to what it is now. It was always very basic; there were no televisions (they were actually illegal in a betting shop) so all you had was commentary coming through some rather insufficient speakers. There were no screens so every shop had a giant lined whiteboard and employed a board marker to write the latest prices and the results so the punters could see them.
It was also illegal to have windows where people could see into the shop so there was never any natural light which gave a very seedy impression. Also it was not allowed for the door to be left open in the summer as again people would be able to see in so they would have the hanging plastic strips hanging from the door frame during the hotter months that you would have to push through to enter.   
Most shops seemed to be full of old men scribbling their bets onto betting slips whilst seemingly constantly smoking, but they were mostly very knowledgeable about racing and it was usually interesting to partake in chatting with them. There were no fruit machines or roulette machines, just the papers on the wall, a few betting slip dispensers and some pens attached by wires to the wall.
Even though there was evening horse racing meetings the shops were not open beyond 6pm, so if you wanted a bet on the 8pm at Chester you had to make sure you got to the shop over two hours before the race started. There was no Sunday racing at all, with all shops closed for the day.
Even though they were seedy and smoky in those days I would still maintain they had more atmosphere than today’s soulless shops full of youths shouting aggressively at fruit/roulette machines.
It seems unthinkable now but in those days there was a 10% betting tax. You placed your bet and you could either ‘pay on’ the tax or not pay it and have 10% deducted from your total returns. So, if you put £1 on a 4/1 shot you could either pay £1.10 or just £1 but you would have 50p deducted from your £5 returns if it won. This obviously made it even harder to win in the long run and you needed a very large edge if you wanted to bet profitably!

By the time I started working at the Tote in 2004 everything had changed. Betting shops were now open from 9am until 10pm and Sunday racing was by now the norm, with shops open throughout the weekend. The smoking ban had rid the shops of the cancerous atmosphere but the constant stream of number draws, cartoon races, dog races and adverts for future number draws had killed the atmosphere of everyone chatting with each other trying to figure out who would win the next race.  The shops were cleaner with lots of screens, televisions and natural light pouring in through big plate glass windows. Truthfully I would still prefer to go into a betting office circa 1985 than to a modern day one!
Telephone betting had also changed with the advent of the debit card. You could now just ring up and place a bet with the money taken directly from your account. If you didn’t have the money you couldn’t place the bet. With the old system of credit accounts it was very easy to lose money you didn’t have and be left with a very worrying bill at the end of the month.
Online betting had just started booming and this majorly affected the telephone betting side of things. A lot of the shop customers stayed in the shops for the instant gratification of the physical cash in their hand when they won. A lot of the clients who would use telephone betting were now moving online as they could get their bets on quicker and more efficiently resulting in most firms downsizing their call centres.

It was really Betfair that tempted me personally into the world of online gambling. Once I saw I could get a better price – and have the ability to lay off my bet if I wanted to – changed my betting habits forever. My own first online experiences were very positive. I’d always been a fan of ‘reality TV’ and made quite a decent profit when Will Young won the very first Pop Idol. After that I started looking at the market in far more detail and over the next couple of years realised that I had a real talent for spotting value in these markets.
Also once I realised that if I went to my local betting shop I might get 5/1 on a certain horse winning and yet online I could maybe get 8/1 for the same horse there was no way I was not going to bet online. I was like a kid in a candy shop; I could bet on any sport I liked, easily hunt down the best price, and do it to as small a stake as I liked. Generally speaking the phone betting services required a minimum stake of £10 but if I just wanted to put 50p on a correct score then I could.
I didn’t then go into a betting shop to have a bet for probably five years and only started doing so again once my online accounts were restricted and I needed to get money on a certain event.

When you walk in a betting shop you have that firm’s prices to take and nothing else. Online there are firms like Oddschecker and BestBetting that give you all of the current bookmaker prices so you can seek out the value. Even a clueless punter will lose less betting this way as he will always get the best price available at that time.
I’m profitable online (I have to be as it’s a fair portion of my income and without it I would have to return to a full time job!) Previously when I used to be just another punter in a betting shop I used to lose money and – if I was brave enough to go back and work it out – probably far more than I would care to admit!
A lot of the reason I am now a profitable punter was down to me getting my job a trader with the Tote. It taught me how profitable punters operated and also taught me all the things that would stop the ‘leaks’ that were costing me money.
In betting if you want to make a profit you have to have an area of expertise and you have to put in the work and research to find the value bets. I won on my first bet in the reality show arena but the real turning point that made me realise I could make a regular profit came later that year. There was a ‘World Idol’ that Christmas with Pop Idol winners from many countries around the world entering. Britain’s Will Young and USA’s Kelly Clarkson were the favourites but I was looking to take them on as there was a lot of anti-UK and US feelings around at the time. There was no-one in their class until a Hobbit-like creature from Norway called Kurt Nilsen sang Beautiful Day by U2 last and sang it better than Bono actually could. I was convinced he would win easily and thought he would be odds on to win but amazingly when I looked he was still 9/2 third favourite! I just kept reloading my Betfair account and took as much at around that price as I could and he duly won easily. It was at this point that I realised I was cleverer than most in this area of betting.

Reality shows were always offered by bookies but traditionally they were a losing market for the firms (who tolerated them only because they attracted more female customers who were mostly an untapped resource and created plenty of new accounts despite only placing small bets). When I started compiling the odds for these at the Tote I was told break even would be a good result. I consistently returned over 30% profit for them and because of this I was allowed to take larger bets and considerably upped the turnover for the firm on these markets. I had another lad there called Ryan who was great at finding statistics and polls that helped us. Between us we had these markets stitched up and established plenty of new connections to share information.
In some ways success in this market is a different process to being successful at, for instance, the dogs. Obviously you still have to put the work in and know your subject matter, but the main difference is that the margins for profit are much higher on reality TV markets than anywhere else. In dog racing, tennis or football all the previous form is there for everyone to see  and means that the bookmakers price will always be pretty close to correct, so unless you have ‘inside information’ your margins will be very small. When we have 12 new acts on X Factor then there is no form, it’s purely opinion and if your opinion holds more value than the various odds compilers then you can take advantage of any error they make that sometimes can be quite a long way away from the correct price!

X Factor is particularly attractive to me as it is on primetime TV with big viewing audiences and everyone who watches it has an opinion. Unfortunately most people can see it now but X Factor has always been heavily manipulated by the producers and it is easy to see who they would like to win and who they want rid of.  Once you know this it makes life a lot easier. Also I have connections that specialise in things like Twitter stats, Youtube hits and even Facebook followers. Once you correlate this information with certain online polls and with your own opinion you have far more information than the people making the odds.
If you want to make money from betting you have to appreciate that there are no ‘get rich quick’ schemes. If you want to make money betting on anything then you have to do the homework and practice pricing up the markets yourself so it is easier to spot wrong prices. All the shows have different audiences so what works with one may not work with another. Big Brother has a totally different audience to X Factor so you have to look at different polls and think slightly differently when assessing everyone’s relative chance of winning. A good example is the lunatic-infested forum that is Digital Spy. For smaller viewing audience shows like Big Brother they can have a massive influence on the result and yet with a much larger audience show like X Factor their influence is diluted to virtually nothing.

My problem with online gambling these days is that most of the firms will not take a decent bet off me. Once they figure out you are a winning punter they restrict your account to the point that you can’t get more than £5 on a 2/1 shot – and you can’t make a living doing that. I’ve been on the other side restricting winning clients myself when I was a senior trader, so I understand it is good business on behalf of the bookmakers to do so.  
Online gambling will continue to grow as more people move away from the betting shops and into the online environment which is far more value-friendly. Also it is far more instantaneous, so if you are watching a football match and halfway through you are convinced Team A will win then you can just log on, find the best price and within a minute have your bet on. You can’t watch a football match now without Ray Winstone trying to intimidate you into having a bet or other firms giving you the latest prices so you can see which direction the bookmakers want to take things!