independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

All bets off for winning punters

Enjoy your online gambling, writes Johnny Ward, just don't expect to be allowed to win

Dear Sir/Madam

Following a review of your account we have decided that we no longer wish to offer you a sports betting service.

Unless we specifically inform you in writing, (we) are not prepared to operate any sports betting facilities with you. This would also apply to an account in someone else's name used on your behalf.

Any bets inadvertently accepted after closure will be made void, irrespective of whether they win or lose; however, any outstanding ante-post or other unsettled bets accepted prior to closure will stand.

Finally, may we assure you that this decision has been taken only after careful consideration and that it does not affect your ability to play (our other) products -- ie Poker, Casino, Games and Bingo.

Most bettors will never have to contend with a letter such as this, which was sent to a Dublin-based punter last week. His final crime was to avail of a 1/3 shot in a match bet in a golf tournament.

He is one of those rare phenomena: a successful bettor. He makes his money on a variety of sports, punting honestly and almost always governed solely by his own judgment. Not for him are each-way bets in 'dodgy races', 'arbing' (more on this anon) or chancing his arm with 'palpable error' prices. But he's a consistent winner and, as such, bookies have no interest in accommodating him.

"Just getting a bet on is generally a struggle nowadays. I have gone through numerous friends and family credit cards. Shops are an option but they also monitor your business and you start getting fewer and fewer bets on. I try and get friends to go to different shops around the country and have gotten friends of friends to let me use their cards."

On the Betfair forum, the restrictions placed on successful punters have long been lamented, but it is a predicament that younger, less experienced punters, those who only bet sporadically and the media seem genuinely unaware of.

Many start betting, lured by advertising slogans such as -- It matters more when there's money on it; Everyone's got an opinion, what's yours worth? and Play the if in life -- but do they appreciate that they will probably get heavily restricted or prevented from betting with bookmakers altogether if they win consistently?

Bookmakers will argue that they are entitled to do business with whomever they wish and that they, after all, run a business. One small-time bookie, also a punter, explained the quandary that well-intentioned layers find themselves in.

"From my own experiences, we have only ever closed two accounts. One guy is a nephew of a very well-known trainer in this country and at first we thought all we needed to do was be careful of his uncle's horses.

"But it turned out that he had a very professional approach to his punting -- focusing mainly on two-year-olds -- and any 'information' he got was really only a bonus. The other guy was a golf punter who backed 72-hole match-bets and group bets. Again we thought 'this can't continue' but it did and we lost way too much money to both of them."

More will say that they should not be enticing people to open accounts if they only offer a service as long as you are a loser, like the vast bulk of gamblers. The policy of squeezing out winners is not new, but it is acknowledged across the industry that, of late, there has been increased stifling of successful accounts.

All the familiar names -- Paddy Power, Ladbrokes, Will-iam Hill, Boylesports, Victor Chandler and the smaller firms -- restrict winning accounts to varying degrees. And the racing media, silenced by sponsorship, all but ignores it.

Gamblers living in rural areas are even more reliant on online and telephone betting services and one such acquaintance serves as an obvious example of the questionable standards of fairness involved.

"I can't get on with Bet 365, while Betfred and Ladbrokes have restricted me heavily. The first two named just upped sticks one day and I literally couldn't get more than a fiver on. I had taken a couple of grand off them, no more, but I was backing a good percentage of winners and a lot of horses that were shortening in the morning.

"Ladbrokes are annoying me because I can probably do without the other two but not them; they still allow me a bet but nothing worth talking about: I could ask for a fifty and be offered a score. Even if I ring them up after this, I am not offered my requested stake, and I reiterate that I am not a big punter.

"I'd say 99.9 per cent of my bets were based on my own convictions. I don't really do any information-based bets. In a way I wish I knew all this stuff when I started betting and I'd approach it all differently."

Each time he was restricted, there was no notification from the bookmaker, with the exception of Bet 365 who informed him that he would no longer be able to avail of their occasional free bets -- a curious means of telling him that his account was effectively closed.

This is a story all too familiar with punters who are no longer welcomed by that particular firm.

Generally, the bookies make no effort to tell you that they have you clamped. Moreover, they can restrict winning punters to bets of around two euro, yet use them as a marker to guide their traders as to when a price should be cut.

An absurd example of this was when a Dublin-based bettor last year attempted to have an amount he knew Boylesports would not lay him online on an even-money shot in a League of Ireland seasonal match bet. Armed with experience of similar failures in the past, he reasoned that they would almost certainly cut the price of the team he had tried to back, and ease the odds of the other, which he actually wanted to back all along. True enough, the original 8-11 favourite in the match bet was eased to evens, and he happily strolled into a shop to put a reasonable bet on at that price.

Paddy Power are probably correct in the belief that they are among the better online layers, but there will be no shortage of online punters who are critical of Ireland's most PR-savvy firm. Power's website is by far the most popular among Irish punters and the average stake of their cyber customers is €18. They quote prices on 72 different sports.

"With betting available on so many different events, the strength and depth of betting markets are very much dependent on the event," spokesman Paddy Power said.

"In simple terms we will obviously take a lot more bets on a lot more horses in a race at Cheltenham than a maiden hurdle at a mid-week meeting."

Powers, however, are no different to the other firms who are generally reluctant to lay bets to shrewd punters. Where one can, perhaps, sympathise is with their disregard for 'arbers' -- a relatively recent term to describe those who back something at a bigger price than which they can lay (back against) it on the exchanges. It is guaranteed profit, albeit a modest one, but the online firms, in general, quickly purge customers who are quite obviously only arbing.

"Good luck to all arbers," Power says, "but we have no particular interest in dealing with them: we want to deal with punters. If the arbers with the most sophisticated computer software go around and hoover up all the biggest odds with all the bookies, then the ordinary decent punter gets left with worse odds and that's not right." But it is the ordinary decent punter that is often clamped. To give the layers their due, it should be pointed out that two 6/1 shots in the same race might have entirely different stake limits imposed online and sometimes the restriction relates to the horse rather than the punter.

"All events, across all channels (retail, telephone and internet) will have predetermined liability limits and therefore if a horse has been well-backed already, late customers trying to get on may automatically get offered a reduced stake until the market is reassessed, or balanced, by laying other runners," explained an industry insider.

At the crux of the problem are over-worked or moderately talented traders in whom their employers have little faith. The same traders are under pressure to make money on the events that they quote prices about. Furthermore, they have considerable margins in their favour factored into prices to allow for the reality that they are not privy to all information, but for some bookmakers, even that is not enough.

"It's not fair to say 'trust your oddsmakers': Betfair has forever changed the role of an oddsmaker," said another insider. "The day of tissue prices is gone. We would have little or no confidence in our initial prices on rubbish races and any weight of money for any of them would drain confidence further."

Bookmakers, thanks to bad gamblers, contribute massive sums of money to racing, but there is something very dispiriting about the philosophy of only appreciating the custom of those who lose. "We try not to close too many accounts. But yes, let's also hold our hands up because there are some punters who are very, very good at what they do and we take a business decision that might curtail their activity," conceded one trader, siding with diplomacy.

The next time you hear a bookie spouting spurious tales about the massive bets his company took that day, remember that it is easy to bargain with the truth when nobody is willing to question you.

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