The invention of political betting

This entry was posted on Monday, April 6th, 2009

RON POLLARD, Ladbrokes’ legendary odds-maker, claimed he invented political betting. He said so in his irreverent and entertaining autobiography, ‘Odds and Sods, My Life in the Betting Business’, which was published in 1991.

But he’s way out of line. Pollard may have started political betting in the UK in the wake of the Christine Keeler affair when he opened a book on the Tory leadership race in 1963. However, 47 years earlier, in 1916, the Americans wagered the equivalent of $160million in today’s money on the race for the White House contested by Woodrow Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes.

Even though he was pretty late on the scene in global terms, Pollard gave Ladbrokes a tremendous boost and acres of free publicity when he priced up the Tory battle for the leadership with Rab Butler at 5-4, Lord Hailsham at 7-4 and Reggie Maudling at 6s. It was 10-1 and more the rest. Yes, even in those faraway days bookies bet brutally over round! Ladbrokes were, of course, big winners. The media went into overdrive and the punters loved it.

In the same year Ladbrokes began General Election betting. As ever Ladbrokes’ book made a healthy profit. But the biggest winner was millionaire hotelier Maxwell Joseph, a true-blue Tory, who rang to inquire what price a Labour victory was. He was put straight through to Ladbrokes’ managing director Cyril Stein, himself a dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporter.

Joseph wanted £50,000 on a Socialist victory – it was a huge sum in those days, equivalent to more than a million pounds at today’s prices. Stein told him he could have £30,000 at 11-8 on and the rest at 7-4 on. Joseph picked up a cool £32,272 in winnings, a little hedge against the inflation he feared if Labour got in.

Ladbroke’s Pollard reckons that all the attendant publicity turned Ladbrokes into the major company it is today. He may be right – and his legacy of political betting is with us to this day.

If anything it is growing faster than many other betting markets. Britain’s punters wagered a staggering £30million with traditional bookmakers on the recent US presidential election with a similar amount staked online. It dwarfed the £10million placed on Britain’s 2005 election.

Such growth means that any future election in the UK will produce big numbers. British bookmakers and exchange operators must already be licking their collective lips, for it is only in the UK and Ireland that betting on the outcome of elections is legal, nowhere else in Europe is political betting allowed. In fact, in 2007, when Wimbledon-based bookmaker Unibet offered odds on when a new national government in Belgium might be formed they were promptly hauled before the Brussels prosecutor’s office after a complaint from that country’s Gambling Commission.

This attitude may change as the UK’s recent Gambling Act kicks in, adding to the pressure on European legislators to allow more freedom of choice in betting matters. Ladbrokes may well yet cover far more elections throughout the world than they ever first expected and continue their claimed invention.

However, they won’t be alone though, political gambling is getting bigger and bigger, betting exchanges like Betfair are inventing new political betting opportunities themselves as and creating new markets for the political punter.

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