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Have we got it all wrong?

I had a fascinating meeting this morning with a man who acts as an intermediary for backstreet bookmakers on the sub-continent.

Don’t get me wrong: he acts as an intermediary between bookmakers and bookmakers, not between bookmakers and people that they might allegedly pay to fix results for them. But he’s an intermediary nonetheless, and he knows more about the truth behind the way they operate than I do; and I suspect any of you who read this blog.

He told me what I thought was the astonishing truth that ‘no-one will have profited from the no-ball saga. No-one bets on no balls on the sub-continent. I know there’s plenty of talk about it, but it just doesn’t happen‘.

You can imagine that I was somewhat taken aback. I’d been explaining to people a lot about spot betting – betting that takes place on micro events within a match – and my understanding of how people make money specifically on a no-ball was that a no-ball would turn all the other micro bets on the potential outcomes of the delivery in question into losing bets, making money for the illegal bookie. I know that fixing happens when an illegal bookmaker in an opaque market has a position so heavily weighted for a particular outcome that it pays him to secure it, and I assumed that that is what would have happened in the story alleged by the News of the World. The only way, I reasoned, for sufficient money to be placed on a single ball to warrant a fix, would be for multiple micro bets on the outcome of a given delivery all to be losers.

Such, too, has been the assumption of the media. Over the last few days, multiple correspondents, including the esteemed Aggers, have come out with statements like, “there are millions wagered on whether something will be a no-ball or not”.

But my informant tells me that we’re all talking rot. People don’t bet on that micro outcome on the sub-continent or anywhere else.

It is, he told me, all about control. The no-ball situation that we have seen allegedly develop is about, in his words, ‘proving that you have the player in your pocket’. No-one, he insisted, would have made money on the no-ball itself; but securing a no-ball as precisely as has been alleged is all about demonstrating your reach and your power, which then becomes extremely lucrative in the markets which do make you money: the spreads on run totals, and the match odds of the big games.

Of course, this probably makes the current allegations more, not less, concerning, for two obvious reasons. First, because they underline what everyone has already correctly identified: that if one part of the match is a charade, then who knows what else might be. And second, because it demonstrates just how little we can know, and track, about what happens underground.

Which brings me on to what I thought was a rather surprising piece from Oliver Holt in yesterday’s Daily Mirror (subsequently followed up today in a similar vein) in which he argues that “the cause, the common denominator in all these scandals, is the influence of the betting industry. Gambling,” he writes, “weaves its way through world sport like a particularly virulent and aggressive form of ivy seeking out the cracks and weaknesses in the brickwork of a building.” While he acknowledges that “most of the problems” stem from the illegal betting markets, he believes that, “even if the bookmaking industry in this country is blameless in this scandal it would be disingenuous to claim it has not harmed sport. Gambling on sport is ubiquitous”; and he criticises sport for taking money from gambling operators.

This seems to me to be seriously muddled thinking.

The article states that “betting on cricket, football and tennis is more popular than ever”, which of course is true. This is because people have strong opinions, and the increasingly natural inclination is to put your money where your mouth is. What’s wrong with that? Everyone has an opinion, after all, as Oliver Holt knows: he’s got himself a career that allows him to express his own to a large audience every day. Not everyone has that opportunity, and some express their view by having a bet.  Why not?

Admittedly, some people bet a lot more than others; and some bet in extraordinary amounts on extraordinary things. But surely, that just becomes a question of relativism. Personally, I hate losing a fiver on a bet, because I know I won’t have studied recent form sufficiently, and I might as well have thrown the money out of the window. But I know others who think that a bet smaller than five thousand isn’t a bet worth placing.

It seems to me, though, that once you’ve accepted the basic premise that expressing your view on the outcome of an event (and backing it with money) is a legitimate pastime, who are you to judge how often or in what size someone should be allowed to do it? And who are you suddenly to draw the line and say that enough people bet now, thanks, and we’d rather not have any more money swilling around the betting system, so sorry, but if you aren’t signed up already, you’ve missed the boat. If betting is becoming more popular, good on the people who want to bet. The genie, as they say, was long ago released from the bottle. You can’t jump off a balcony and expect to stop half-way down.

People’s desire to express their view and see if it makes them richer has spawned a perfectly legitimate industry which offers a well-ordered and regulated way for everyone to ensure that if they put their money down and win, they will get paid out. That perfectly legitimate industry might not be everyone’s moral cup of tea, but perfectly legitimate, licensed, and regulated is what it is.

If at the same time, an illegitimate group of people seek to take that same basic desire and con all those expressing it by pretending that in their world, outcomes are equally uncertain, when in fact they are not uncertain at all but fixed (and fixed against you), that can hardly be the fault of the first group. Sadly, illegitimate industries develop whenever money can be made: all of us have to protect ourselves against it, and all of us pay a price for living in this imperfect world. People who clone credit cards and steal PIN numbers cause us to suffer banking charges or lower rates of interest; people who make false insurance claims make all our premiums higher. Such is life.

Everywhere else it happens, we call it crime. But apparently not in sport. Mr Holt says that the growing popularity of betting in football, cricket and tennis means that  “all three sports have had to wrestle with the demands of policing their players” . No it hasn’t. It’s the corrupt fixing of outcomes that requires that, for whatever financial gain might come from doing so. The financial return may come from fleecing a load of people who thought they were having a bet on an outcome as yet undetermined, when in fact they were just handing over money to someone who had fixed a guaranteed result. But it hasn’t come from one set of people expressing a view one way, and another set expressing a view another, and then everyone seeing what happens – which is what most of us, I think, would call a bet. The sports don’t need to be policing their players for that set of people: they need to be doing it to make sure that their rules aren’t broken. So whether there is a legitimate gambling industry or not, they should be policing their players.

Some will argue that within that group who are going to make money one way or another, there is now a huge incentive to secure outcomes because the sums of money bet are so large. Maybe they are. But how does that change the argument? It’s still not the betting that’s at fault, but the corrupt activity involving the player. And it’s questionable whether the integrity position changes just because the money offered gets larger.

There’s a great story attributed variously to Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and Mark Twain that goes like this: he asks a lady if she’d sleep with him for £1million, and she says yes. He asks if she’d sleep with him for a tenner, and she replies, “good gracious! What do you think I am?” He replies,”madam, we have established that already. We are now just negotiating a price.”

Just as is true of that story, and just as was true about the issue of relativism above (either you say that it’s legitimate to have a view on some aspect of a given spectacle, or you don’t), it seems to me that the same black-and-white situation applies here: there cannot be a shade of grey. Either you’re corrupt and will take money to fix an outcome at a price to be negotiated, or you aren’t and you won’t.  Corruption for small sums rather than large ones would not suddenly be fine, any more than betting in big sums rather than in small sums is suddenly bad. It isn’t a matter of degree: corrupt is corrupt is corrupt.

In short, the pervasiveness of gambling, assuming it is fine, transparent, gambling, is perfectly legitimate and presents no-one with a problem. The problem comes when people start to do things which are corrupt, and unless someone involved in the match is part of the corruption, the game will be played on its merits from start to finish, however much is bet with licensed operators on any outcome. We can’t hide from that fact by blaming the existence of a legitimate industry making positive use of a human desire for the sins of another set of people who make negative use of that same human desire.

The answer has to be not to call for limits on betting, but to do the opposite: to legalise it and regulate it, as widely as possible. Which makes the news out of an India court today very good news indeed.

Posted in Betting industry, Regulation.

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6 Responses

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  1. ScottF says

    The purpose of the no-balls, i.e. control over the players, was mentioned in some forums and not others – mainly the expert betting media as opposed to the general media who covered the story with people who don’t understand betting. It was mentioned in the original NotW piece, but it would be easy to miss it without a full comprehension of the issues.

    You mention Oliver Holt alleging corruption in sport is always linked to betting. Italian football scandals have never had anything to do with betting – it’s always about club presidents having mates at other clubs and doing favours for each other (sometimes involving the exchange of cash, but not always). The 1978 World Cup in Argentina had one of the biggest fixes of all-time when the Argentine government gaves millions in aid to Peru, and purely by coincidence, Peru conceded the six goals needed for Argentina to reach the next round. Corruption even occurs in events as petty as child beauty pageants and village vegetable-growing competitions. It goes far deeper than betting and it doesn’t stop when the prize is just a ribbon…..

  2. j0n1 says

    This is the first decent interpretation of what is really going on here I’ve read. Great insights, thank you. When the story broke it never really made sense to me that anyone would be prepared to pay £150k for a few no-balls on the basis of a financial return for those particular actions. However, in the context of demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that you as a fixer can get players during a live match to behave in a pre-determined way, this makes perfect sense. It also serves to consolidate a circle of trust between the crooked punter/syndicate, the fixer and the players before the real money changes hands. And as all 3 parties are equally culpable it is very unlikely that any will ever blow whistle.

    What you have here (if proven in a court of law) is criminal behaviour from all 3 parties and it is ridiculous to apportion any blame to the legal and regulated gambling industry – you may just as well blame the lumberjack that felled the tree that made the cricket bat.

  3. Gary N says

    2nd Test Pakistan 1st Inns:
    12-3 off 14.2 overs with just the one boundary – “Anderson to Salman Butt, FOUR, good placement, Butt simply opened the face and guided that one down into the ground and through the gap between gully and point and it ran away for the first boundary of the match”

    Not sure the “sellers” would have been too happy with Butt’s placement.

Continuing the Discussion

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