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BUSINESS ABROAD: King of the Bookies

4 minute read

One day a gentleman collapsed in the entrance hall of White’s, London’s oldest, most exclusive club. Legend has it that while he was being dragged inside, other club members wagered on whether he was dead or just unconscious. This so shocked a parson that he cried out: “I protest! I believe that if the last trumpet were sounded, [Britons] would bet on whether it was a puppet show or the last Day of Judgment.”

Last week, though parsons still thundered, Britons were betting more than ever. Gambling is more at home in Britain than anywhere else in the world. Every Thursday night, some 7,000,000 families gather around domestic hearths for a quiet evening at home, picking entries for the weekend mutuel football (soccer) pools. Half the adult population in the isles bets, and individuals wager an average of 60¢ a week. Last year the gambling outlay amounted to 81,540,000,000. The favorites: $980 million on horse racing, $336 million on dog racing, and $207 million on football pools.

Six days a week, every week of the year, British factory workers bet on horse and greyhound races. The Methodist Temperance and Social Welfare Committee sin gled out this “constant interruption of industrial effort by gambling” as one of the main reasons for Britain’s low productivity. But the 1951 Royal Commission on Betting pooh-poohed the thought: “Gambling on the [present] scale cannot be. regarded … as a serious strain on our resources or manpower.”

Self-Made Man. Today, the pastime of having a “flutter” is a big, respectable business in Britain, employing 100,000 workers. Lording it over the industry is a burly, self-made man named Bill Hill, 52, King of the Bookies. Hill learned the business as a bookies’ runner, set himself up in business while still a teenager. He went broke once, before he got enough capital to withstand the heavy losses on the days the bettors “beat the books.” No mobster or furtive tout, Bill now has his own Hill House, a palatial office building in London’s bustling Piccadilly Circus. As the 1955-56 professional football got under way he looked to another busy year of booking bets. He expects to handle $16,-800,000 in soccer bets, $51,800,000 more in horse-racing wagers, $9,800,000 on dog races—a total for the year of $78,400,000. On this, Hill’s take is 25% on soccer, i% on racing bets at the track, and 6% away from the track, a total of $7,102,000. His overhead is high (20% on football bets), and he keeps his profit secret. But his profit before taxes is estimated at about $3,000,000.

Hill’s enterprise is one of the largest charge-it businesses in the world. At peak season he employs 3,000 clerks in his main office and two branches (one in Glasgow, the other in the London financial district). Prospective clients call up, name banks or reputable friends as references, then ask Hill’s for a weekly credit—anything from 10 to thousands of pounds. (A few wealthy clients have no credit limits.) Once the credit is granted, the player places his bet by phone, telegram or mail. One squad of clerks makes sure the wager was received or postmarked before race time, then other clerks, sitting in the huge horse room, check each bet against the enormous blackboard that carries race results from all over England. The betting week closes Friday night; by Monday morning every client either receives his check for winnings or, more likely, his bill in a plain envelope.

“Lightning Judgment.” Hill’s takes thousands of bets by word of mouth, some just before race time, but a dispute is almost unknown, even though British law does not recognize gambling debts. Nevertheless, Hill’s credit losses run to only 0.5% of the total, a record that a department store might envy.

Occasionally, Bill gets away from his desk and out to the track. A determined horseman himself, he has a 1,500 acre stud farm, raised one horse, Nimbus, that won the Derby in 1949. Bill calls the track his “shop window” and puts on a good display. Togged out in a sharply cut lounge suit, silk shirt and floppy Panama, he joins one of the three representatives who handle his book at such big meets as Ascot, Epsom and Goodwood. While other bookies call their odds “ten to one,” Bill goes all out: “I’ll lay a thousand to a hundred.” Says Bill with considerable pride: “The entire business is based on lightning judgment. Every punter [bettor] is entitled to outsmart his bookmaker if he can, and good luck to him. There’s no limit to what you can win, I tell my customers. We British are born gamblers.”

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