Paddy Power is an Irish success story... but not for punters
Published 27/08/2015 | 02:30
Rule number one of gambling: the house always wins. There are no other rules. Except punters tend to believe they can beat the house. Sometimes they score a hit, but sooner or later gamblers hand back their winnings - and more besides.
Gambling is in the news, with Paddy Power and Betfair agreeing terms for a potential merger to create a superbookie called Paddy Power Betfair Group. If it goes ahead, it will position them among the world's largest stock market-quoted betting firms.
Online is a key element of the strategy. Online, of course, means punters can gamble 24/7. No need to wait for the bookies to open - they never shut. No need to leave the house or your workplace - losing money couldn't be more convenient.
Paddy Power is already the biggest beast in the Irish gaming jungle, plus it has an international presence. Its results for the first half of 2015 were released yesterday, and showed a stonking 33pc increase in operating profits. It had revenues of almost €528m, and online was the star performer with €345m generated.
The trend is even more pronounced if the online breakdown is studied: more than two-thirds of revenue in that category springs from bets placed via mobiles. Click-click-gone.
Internet betting makes it easier than ever before to continue losing money because people lose contact with reality. Money becomes an electronic number, not a dwindling stack of notes in your hand. With paddypower.com, gamblers can try their hand at poker, casino games, bingo, sports betting and spread betting. Online may also give the illusion that gambling is a science rather than a game of chance. For example, gamblers can use an app to check out instantaneously the best price on offer with a host of online bookmakers. They imagine they're not just taking a punt but doing research that will increase the scale of their win.
The bookies' use of data, however, is even more focused and punters don't take that into account.
People who might never consider entering a betting shop have no such hesitation about a flutter on the Lotto, although the odds are arguably worse there. Changes have been made by the new owners of the National Lottery to the jewel in its crown, the Lotto game. Next week, it's becoming more expensive to play and the chances of winning have dropped.
The cost has risen by one euro to €4 for a minimum two lines, and the addition of two more numbers reduces considerably the odds of winning the jackpot. But no doubt queues will continue to form to play.
Gambling has been a form of entertainment since ancient times, after all. Greek tragedian Sophocles, who died in 406BC, claimed the dice was invented during the Siege of Troy to pass the time, while dice have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back 8,000 years.
Once bookies became part of the gambling story, there has been an enduring fascination with the battle between bookie and punter. Beating the bookies is every punter's goal - and not just incrementally but spectacularly.
I come from a family of gamblers. I've seen up close how addictive a flutter is - how a win brings euphoria, and a series of losses can cause enormous financial problems.
My father trained and raced greyhounds and had a lifelong love for the sport.
Often, family days out to the seaside were tactically arranged by him to end at a greyhound track, usually Lifford in Co Donegal. Like most gamblers, he lost more times than he won.
But on at least one occasion he triumphed over the bookmakers in the game of wits between bookie and punter, and it went down in family folklore.
He had a cracking greyhound, injured the previous year, which had a six-month lay-off from racing while it recovered. It was now fit again but needed to be re-registered before it could enter competitions.
To try out the dog, he decided to race it at a 'flapping' or 'flapper' track - that is, an unlicensed track. He was confident it was back to form, and wanted to lay a substantial bet with the bookies. But if he arrived as the owner, and tried to gamble heavily on it, the bookies would be too wary to accept his wager.
So he sent ahead my youngest brother, a baby-faced 18-year-old, and a friend to enter the dog for a race. Then he arrived separately and placed a bet with each of the bookies lined up there.
The dog was over the finishing line like a rocket, my father cleaned up and sang all the way home. The thrill of getting one over on the bookies shared equal billing with the money he made.
But for every coup, there were dozens and dozens of times when he went home with empty pockets. My father didn't gamble more than he could afford to lose. For him, it was about entertainment. However, I also heard him whisper to my mother about various friends who gambled to excess and racked up debts which caused hardship for their families.
But back to Paddy Power. It employs 2,570 people in Ireland and 5,000 worldwide - in that context it is an Irish success story, and should be acknowledged as such. If there was no Paddy Power, it would be some other betting company taking gamblers' money.
Still, what a lot of beaten dockets those profits reported yesterday represent. Click-click-gone.