Gambling Here and There

Looking for a little wager? You just have to know where to look. Great Britain and the US each have distinctive gaming traditions with contrasting histories, attitudes, and old customs that can be playful, idiosyncratic, or even dead serious.

The passion for betting in the UK stems from an ancient devotion to horseflesh: the Sport of Kings has stirred the British for centuries. "There's a whole culture of horse racing in the UK," testifies Jesse May, American author of The Gambler's Guide to the World. "It's got all kinds of royal and aristocratic associations. And partly as a result, [racing is] just better -- in the US, the tracks take much more out of the pool, so the betting is much fairer in the UK." Maybe that's why while gambling at the racetrack is way down in the US -- only 7% of the population bet on races in 1997, half of what it was in 1975 -- while 15% of Britons wagered on horses and greyhounds in 2000, making it the most popular form of English wagering apart from the National Lottery (73%, compared with 52% in the US playing state-run lottery games).

Simon Glass, a 32-year-old management consultant now living in Boston, grew up in Northern Ireland, "where it's a huge horse culture," -- Glass's father was a jockey -- "and attached to that is gambling and betting.
"I went to university in Scotland, and instead of really studying hard for four years, myself and a few buddies were partaking in the daily trips to Ladbroke's.
"I'd go so far as saying gambling in general is part of the fabric across all of the United King and Ireland, and not just horse racing."
Indeed, "sports betting is catching up fast," reports gambling authority Mike Nevin, who under the pen name of "Jacques Black" has written numerous books about casino and sports betting, including Football Betting to Win. Sanctioned sports wagering in the UK began with a football pool in the 1930s covering the English and Scottish leagues, but there was little sport in the wager -- to win, a bettor had to choose 8 draws from some 80 matches. "That was essentially a lottery, and the payoff was abysmal," according to Nevin, who when he's not gambling (he's been barred from nearly every casino in Britain thanks to his card skills) works as a financial consultant in Edinburgh where he lives with his wife and son.
Since the Thatcher years, as increasingly small-l liberal Governments have freed the gambling industry much of the regulation which held it back (including, most recently, the 9% betting tax) the variety and scope of sports bets has burgeoned. Says May, "the UK is probably the leader right now in sports books even though there's some very large ones in Costa Rica, but they're not regulated -- while all the sports books in the UK and offshore in the UK are regulated by a government." It isn't just sports bets -- British plungers can decide whether to take a flutter on the winner of a beauty-pageant or an election, or whether or not London will have a white Christmas; Sean Glass remembers bookmakers offering odds on a revolution in China back during the Tienanmen Square one bookmaker is even offering odds on whether Hilary Clinton will ever become President (6-1 at last look).
The development has given British sporting types an advantage not just in variety but in type of bets. The fundamental bet is the "fixed odds" wager, in which a bookmaker offers a payout based on the probability of one team winning: you can take one team at 2-1 odds, meaning that they can collect $2 for every $1 bet. By contrast, American football bettors can generally only get an even-money payoff based on the point spread, or a team's the minimum margin of victory. Say the New York Giants hosting the Kansas City Chiefs, are favored by 3 points -- you make one of two bets: either that the Giants will win by 3 or more points -- or that either the Chiefs will win, or the Giants' margin of victory will be less than 3. Both pay even money (that is, if you bet $1, you'll get $2 back -- your original $1 plus a dollar you won).

The latest development for UK gamblers is "spread betting," an exponential variation on the American point spread. It's grown enormously popular since emerging in the 1980s "as a way for over-paid City Boys to blow their bonuses" as one website puts it. Basically, the bookmaker sets buy and sell prices -- usually for a margin of victory, though it can be for the total number of goals, number of yellow cards, even number of injuries -- and when the match is over, each unit above or below the spread pays off -- so that if you back a team and they start racking up goals, you collect one more wager unit per each goal. (Of course, if you're wrong, you'll have to pay out per goal.) Adding to the excitement, per-goal buy/sell prices for the spread changes during the course of the game, and bettors can place bets throughout the course of a match -- to counter their initial bets, or to press an advantage. It's a very exciting -- and potentially dangerous -- means of wagering, which as Nevin points out, provides an avenue for a savvy fan: "if you can read a game better than the general public, what's happening in it, you can get an incredible edge."
In the United States, where sports gambling is illegal except in Las Vegas, casino gambling is king: 29% of Americans have wagered in casinos. (Social concerns and anxiety about organized crime mandated intensive government restrictions on casino gambling when it was legalized in the UK in the 1960s, which helps explain why only 4% of the British population wagered in casinos in 2000.) American casino gambling has grown, beanstalk-like, from its Nevada roots and is now "basically in everyone's backyard," says Peter Ruchman, general manager of the Gambler's Book Shop in Las Vegas. The growth of Indian casinos stems from a 1987 Supreme Court decision which affirmed the right of tribes to maintain games not prohibited by state law.
Ruchman, who is at work at a multi-volume history of gambling in the US, characterizes the American attitude toward gambling as split since Colonial times: in the north, a Puritan, New England worldview took hold and imposed punitive religious laws against gambling -- an outlook which, as Ruchman points out, is still being felt: "There are casinos all over the US in 38 states, but in New England, there is only one state which has casinos, and there are only two there." Ruchman, an Oberlin College graduate with a degree in American studies, contrasts the severe Northern disapproval with a freer Southern laissez-faire outlook which permitted wagering. "The original leaders of our country -- Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison -- gambled with great delight, and wrote about their gambling adventures."
Since gambling is still not an accepted part of everyday American life, the emphasis has turned to resort-style complexes. Whether it's native American casinos, municipally-licensed gaming places, or riverboats -- the casino gaming experience is frequently just one part of a full-scale entertainment smorgasbord including music, theatre, dining, even outdoor recreation. And thanks to the competition for the vacationing gambler's dollar, a card- or dice-player has a full assortment of entertainment packages to choose from: Vegas alone offers deals for almost every conceivable budget and taste. (And with a little bit of preparation, a savvy high roller can almost always find a very attractive comp package from a quality casino.) To a fault, casinos are consumer-friendly -- there are no dress codes, and while liquor is prohibited at UK gambling tables, American casinos encourage their customers to imbibe -- often giving high rollers complementary drinks -- a not-very-coy ploy to loosen their inhibitions. Rules are superior for the gambler for virtually every game with the exception of roulette, where the American wheel, with its double-zero pocket, has a prohibitive house edge compared to the single- zero wheel in use in Europe and the UK -- where, not surprisingly, roulette is much more popular, in fact the biggest game in most houses.
Craps is the prototypical American casino game: lots of noise, bustle, and excitement -- action, as they like to say. By contrast, in the UK, dice tables barely get any play. As Nevin points out, "craps has partly the fun of a group event, where everyone's urging the dice, and you've got to be shouting and yelling. Well, at an upmarket Mayfair casino that sort of behavior wouldn't go down too well."