The football season—and by football in this case, in England, I mean soccer—lasts from August to April. On Thursday afternoon every week during this time, my gambling partner Mr. Harvell, who is also our gardener, handyman and chauffeur, leaves the garden or car or whatever he has been working on. He retires to the privacy of his living room, brings out the pools coupon and a pencil and settles down to the really important work of the week. Down the left-band side of the coupon—which has arrived in the mail before the previous weekend—is a column of names listing football matches that are to be played off on the coming Saturday. Each column is arranged with the home team's name on the left and the "away," or visiting, team's on the right. The rest of the page is ruled off by horizontal and vertical lines, so that across the sheet from each pair of names runs a row of little boxes. There are usually 54 matches in the list, but there can be more, up to 60. Mr. Harvell is trying to prophesy the results of some of these matches, especially which ones are likely to end in a tie or, as the British prefer to put it, in a draw. He indicates his prognostication in each case with neatly drawn figures in the appropriate box, working his way down the page, but not filling in every single space, since the more up-and-down lines he fills in, the more it costs. He must also make up his mind which pool he intends to bet on. Shall it be the Penny Points Pool, forecasting 14 matches—a shilling for 12 attempts, three bob for 36? Or the Lit-Plan, covering 16 selections, for 5 shillings? (If he's got a Vernons coupon rather than one from Little-woods, the name for that plan is V-Plan. But the principle, and the cost, are the same.) What about a perm, short for permutations and combinations? All of this must be thought out. When he is satisfied he puts the coupon into the addressed envelope that came with it, automatically reading and mentally replying to the boldly printed words over which he will ultimately seal the flap:
•SIGNED YOUR COUPON
•CHECKED FOR CORRECT DATE
MADE SURE THAT ANY PERM ENTRY IS ACCURATE AND COMPLETE
Yes, Mr. Harvell has done all this, but he doesn't yet seal the envelope. He must first go to the post office in the village and buy a postal order—for three and nine, or five, or whatever he feels that he and I should allow for this week's flutter. This he puts in with the coupon, seals it all up, stamps the envelope, mails it and comes home, dreaming just a little of how nice it is going to be if he's really managed to hit it on the nose this time.
Mr. Harvell is not greedy. He doesn't long for a big win of ¬£300,000. He doesn't even wish he could get ¬£75,000. He and Mrs. Harvell would be happy enough with a share of ¬£6,000. She explained it to me:
"We'd buy a house," she said, "and rent it out until we feel like retiring, then we'd be able to move in ourselves. That would be just about it. What do you think you'd be doing with your half?"
"Six thousand," I said thoughtfully. "I'd need notice on that." For, as I said before, Mr. Harvell and I are partners in this weekly investment. I'm afraid it's a lopsided partnership, because he does all the thinking and figuring. I only pay half the expenses. Still, I don't think he feels aggrieved, because he knows from experience how bad I am at making out the coupon. At the beginning he tried to give me a fair chance of taking my turn every other week, and I made a mess of it. Nowadays he does it, and keeps me informed on anything out of the ordinary, such as an extra-special big bet of 90¢ instead of 55¢, or a win. Yes, we have had our lucky days. Once we got about a dollar apiece, over and above expenses. Another time we had $4.50 each, and once, believe it or not, we took in ¬£116—more than $150 apiece. That time, my husband, who had always sneered at our preoccupation, looked very thoughtful.
The first thing that strikes a visiting American about all this is the piquant fact that it's legal. There are laws against gambling in Britain (right now they are the subject of debate in Parliament, occasioned by a bill which would overhaul them completely), but the contention of pools champions is that the pools aren't gambling in the legal sense of the word but games of skill. Indeed, nobody who watches Mr. Harvell with his pencil could doubt that he really does lavish brain power and technique on the task. It is no mere lottery for him. No wowser could possibly claim that it's as easy as shooting craps. Yet there are still cynics who maintain that you'd probably do quite as well by shutting your eyes and jabbing blindly at the coupon. These are the people who argue that the government connives at the game for the sake of the tax collected by the treasury from the pools firms—a tidy sum of money, as we shall shortly see—and that no official would dare fly in the face of the populace anyway by abolishing the pools, since to do so would certainly bring down the government. But then some people will say anything.
It is a fact that most contestants are dead serious about their selections and take a lot of trouble over them, which does not surprise the person who first looks at the layout. It seems pretty complicated (see page 73). I have just opened our weekly Littlewoods packet, in which are two sets of coupons—one for sending in, one to keep as a copy—a sheet of pure advertising and a little red paper book of the rules for the new season, in compliance with the Pool Betting Act of 1954. The backs of the coupons are decorated with forms, on which one may try the fancier methods of betting, with Dickensian names such as The Easier Six. Small-time stuff, The Easier Six—the maximum you can bet on that is a pound. Along the top of next Saturday's pool are several beaming faces: Littlewoods winners who won fix-figure dividends, shown complete with names, partial addresses and the amount each one got. The text doesn't tell you just how these lucky, or perhaps I should say skillful, persons did their betting, but I shouldn't be surprised to hear that most of them did it by way of the treble chance.
People like the treble chance—average investment, three shillings and ninepence—because if you win it you do win such a lot. It has been known to pay out more than ¬£300,000 in one whack, which was at the time 54% of the entire pool, a limit which has since been reduced to 44 %, and you are not likely to be competing with any other winner that week. All you've got to do to take this money is guess the right eight matches to draw. Eight matches out of 54, or 56 or 57, have got to end in draws, and you've got to have guessed them all in advance, very unlikely eventualities both of them. But it has happened, and when it happens the one who guessed right is made. As a pools publicity man rightly says, "Any investor who has selected that eight can be as rude as he likes to his bank manager."
It may seem like small beginnings—a few shillings out of Everyman's pocket—but in sum they lead at the other end to a truly tremendous industry, which comes out ahead even after it has paid a 30% tax. I don't know exactly how many pools firms there are, but the main ones number half a dozen, and four of these are members of the Pools Promoters Association and are honest. Every week, according to the law, they announce their dividends. Littlewoods is the largest, and Vernons a close runner-up. (One intriguing sideline on the spirit of competition in Britain: a punter [bettor] who wishes to send in a perm to Littlewoods but happens to have only a Vernons coupon, or one who has a Littlewoods coupon but prefers Vernons, etc., can do so provided he makes his intentions "clear in meaning and capable of only one interpretation." The cuckoo's-egg coupon will be accepted.)
The firms are all privately owned companies. From time to time the Labor Party agitates to nationalize the pools, but such action has not been taken. It would be an unpopular move. If such spokesmen had their way, even though pools winnings are tax-free in Britain, there would be a big crimp in the dividends, for one cannot deny that pools are a tempting source of funds for a hungry treasury. During the past fiscal year of 1958-59, some 17 million people in Britain spent about ¬£90 million on the pools. Littlewoods' total alone for the year reached a new high of more than 43 million, and Shermans, Vernons, Soccer Pools, Cope's, and Empire Pools have all done proportionately well.
Of course an industry of such size is not easy to keep in order. The procedure for betting, as well as for paying out, has been carefully cut and dried, but it is still complicated. To start out, you may write and ask some firm to send you blank coupons, or some enterprising firm may have picked up your name instead or got it from a friend. Once you are on the list the coupons start coming in automatically. Drawing them up is the firms' headache; they must keep their lists of matches up to date, yet still get them out in time. (When a match is not started or is not played, owing to some circumstance such as bad weather, it is considered void. There are other rules to take care of overtime playing, last-minute change of venue and so on.)
Once they've got their coupons, eager beavers may fill them in well ahead of time and pop them straight back to the firm, but most people like to sit and think awhile. Mr. Harvell is one of these. He doesn't post our coupon until Thursday evening or even Friday morning. As long as it gets in before 4 o'clock Saturday afternoon—kicking-off time is either 2:30 or 3 p.m.—it's safe. So, although a few returns begin trickling in on Monday, the receiving department at a place like Littlewoods isn't really busy until the trickle swells during the next few days. Friday is crazy, and Saturday is worse, until the closing-down moment of 4 o'clock, when everything shuts down tighter than a clam.
All that mail, of course, puts a considerable burden on the national post office system, and questions are sometimes asked in the House of Commons as to why the general public should be expected to bear the expense of a private game. To stifle criticism the biggest firms have worked out a method of sending their own vans to the post office to collect the pools mail. Sack after sack of the little envelopes is unloaded at headquarters. At Littlewoods each envelope as it enters the building is stamped by a machine which embosses and pierces everything in it with a secret code—a code that is changed at irregular intervals. Three more code markings are made on the coupon as it progresses, and every paper is also microfilmed, a tremendous task considering how many bits of paper come in every day, but it pays off on contested claims. The firms work on the sound assumption that each coupon is a potentially valuable document, and it is treated as such.
Littlewoods employs 10,000 girls whose work is divided into two sections, sorting the coupons before the matches are played and checking them afterwards. Each action is as methodical as the firm can make it. Envelopes are slit and dealt out according to the number stamped on each. The girls take out coupon and postal order. The postal orders are sent off separately; at her desk the girl unfolds the coupon and looks it over and puts it in its proper pile. Then the coupons are strung like so many beads on a string, packed in sacks and put away in a strong room until the matches have been played off on Saturday afternoon, after which they are brought out again—on Monday morning—and checked against results.
The firms take extraordinary precautions against losing these bits of paper. Now and then one may slip down behind a desk, or fall on the floor under a piece of furniture. Every day the mailbags are thoroughly searched, all envelopes are cut and opened out completely and the building is searched, after hours, three times—desks, drawers, spaces behind furniture, and floors. All furniture is shifted. Wastebaskets are very suspect, so wastepaper makes a slow exit by conveyor belt, and is scrutinized all along the way for fear a stray coupon, or even the torn bit of a coupon, might escape. If some punter claims a big win and the coupon hasn't turned up, a tremendous general search is instituted. To date no one has proved, in the end, that he lost out on a big win in this manner. Once about four years ago a man claimed to have won ¬£6,000 on the treble chance with a Littlewoods coupon. He was able to produce his copy and the counterfoil of the postal order, and the investigators felt it was a genuine claim, yet the coupon certainly had not turned up at Littlewoods. Later it did arrive, with a few others which had been sent by post office mistake to the continent instead of Liverpool, and the firm paid up. They could have argued that they were not liable, but they thought of the bad publicity and did the handsome thing.
Big tragedies, then, are very few, but small mishaps are fairly common, as when a girl fails to spot a win of a few shillings or a pound or so. Partly because of this possibility, dedicated pools players like to check their copy coupons with the radio or television reports on football matches that come through late on Saturday. Mr. Harvell does it regularly. So do I, but only occasionally, because I am a woman who finds even bingo taxing and can just barely manage to watch the end of a horse race. On that great day when we win the ¬£12,000, therefore, it will be Mr. Harvell who realizes it first. He will be right on the spot, ready to send in his claim by telegram. (The pools people make a point of reminding you that you can telephone your wire from anywhere.) Theoretically, it's unnecessary to check for yourself or to make a claim, since the girls are supposed to spot it anyway, and the authorities then let you know the happy tidings. "But it makes it easier for everybody if you do," admits the firm.
A Littlewoods booklet describes the checking: "With her coupons each girl gets a marking sheet. It has been printed during the weekend and is exactly the same size as the pool to be marked. By holding the card, with the correct 1-2-x marked down the side, against the coupon the girls can see at a glance if your coupon fails to qualify for a win. Special cards are available for left-handed girls. While the marking is going on there is no talking. The music-while-you-work loudspeakers are silent. Every few yards is a security man. Watching each group of checkers is a supervisor.
"Speed plus accuracy is the aim. And some of the girls can check as many as 1,000 coupons a day. If you have made a correct forecast, your coupon is torn from the string tying it to the others and handed to a supervisor. Later it will be checked again.
"Naturally, every girl hopes to mark a fortune-winning coupon. As soon as any big winner is discovered, up goes her hand and over comes the supervisor. The coupon is extracted and a duplicate left in its place. The original goes to the claims department. If your telegram claiming a win arrives before your coupon has been checked, the pools can find your entry form among all the other millions within five minutes and pass it through to 'claims.'
"Every big winner is visited. In fairness to the losers, the pools firms want to ensure that every winning entry is valid.... All this happens on Monday. If everything is in order another security man will return on Wednesday with the winner's cheque."
One of the popular dailies has gone into more detail as to the security: "First of all the investigation bureau study your winning coupon. They check that it has gone through the system of code-stamping. They get hold of all the back copies of your investments they can find. They study what your system has been; whether you have suddenly changed it; whether you have altered your investment; whether you have suddenly started posting your coupon late in the week. They are looking for funny business."
This security is an essential part of the proceedings. So much money is involved that a firm can't be too careful.
Everything must be checked, including receipt of the postal orders. From time to time in the old days, a girl would filch one of the enclosures. She doesn't get much chance to do it nowadays; her petty crime is almost sure to be exposed in the search for bigger game. Security officers—Little-woods was employing 168 of them at the last count, most of them ex-policemen—keep an eye on things in general, and spring frequent surprise checks on the staff, for it is one of the favorite dreams of racketeers to trick the pools, and even otherwise respectable people have attempted to work a change on the system. Experience has taught the firms most of their methods. An attack from the inside, based on a partnership between the bettor and some checker, is presumably prevented by unexpected swoops, searches that are constantly made of checkers' clothing and handbags, as well as those of people working on the machines and in the canteens. Nobody is allowed into a Littlewoods building on Saturday after kickoff time. Nobody inside can go out and then return. No telephone calls are accepted. No one indoors can sneak out to his car in the parking lot to listen to scores on the radio.
As for outside methods, it seems unlikely that the most determined crook could suborn a large number of football teams and bribe them to throw the games all in one Saturday afternoon. Less ambitious attempts, such as sending in coupons with false postmarks (they've got to come by mail), are made every week, but they aren't successful. Somebody did nearly manage once to do something like that; he disguised himself as a postman and slipped an envelope, falsely postmarked, in through the crack of a window, but it didn't work, and now there simply aren't any cracks at Littlewoods where a man could push an envelope in. The unofficial openings are wired.
All in all, it seems simpler just to fill in your coupon, the legal way, and take your chances and get your kicks like everybody else—within the law. When you take everything into account, these kicks are considerable, anyway. It's no use talking to a confirmed pools addict about the numerical chances against him. I find it interesting, but not discouraging, that there are 1,040,465,790 ways to select eight matches from 54. So what? It just might be Mr. Harvell and me next time, mightn't it? It's got to be somebody. Every week somebody wins, that's the point.
When he does, a number of interesting things happen. The firm takes a genuine avuncular interest in the people who get smashing wins. Littlewoods shows them the best way to invest their money. It does this immediately, as soon as the money is paid over and before the winners can begin the old nightclub-and-champagne routine, and it must be admitted that in so doing they are wise as well as kindly, since such spectacular winnings, followed by spectacular dissipation, might well strengthen the hands of the highly vocal minority opposed to the whole fabric of the pools.
This is how it happens. The pools firm makes sure first, of course, that the winner is a genuine winner—no monkey business on his part and no mistake in the office. Part of the investigation calls for a written statement from the winner, with a brief biography and description of whatever prizes he has won in the past, if any. When the firm is satisfied that it's all aboveboard, the money is paid over.
Almost before the shouting has died down, there is Littlewoods at the door again, with bank managers and investment advisers and all the rest, ready and anxious to help you handle the bonanza. The first time I paid genuine attention to this side of pools winning was in 1957, when, along with Mr. Harvell and most of the rest of Britain, I saw by the papers that an honest widow woman of Stockport—a poor, worthy widow with two children to bring up, who went out cleaning to earn the money to do this—had won a terrific hunk of cash with the very small bet of eighteen pence—about 21¢. Almost ¬£207,000, it was. I forget the details. My memory tells me, falteringly, that it was the first time she had ever tried her luck. It also tells me without absolute assurance that this was the biggest win in pools history up to that date. But there is no doubt at all in my recollection that we were all—the entire pools public of Great Britain—pleased and happy at Mrs. Nellie McGrail's luck. Indeed, there was so much enthusiasm over it that it percolated into the financial page of my particular evening paper, and brought a personal note into the hitherto desiccated style of the syndicated column on investment for the ordinary man. "A very tidy little sum," this hitherto completely impersonal columnist wrote, "and I am sure we all wish the lady well. Now if I were in Mrs. McGrail's shoes, this is what I would do with the money." Then he broke it down into suitable smaller packets—a project that filled all his space for the day. And, actually, it was really like that, more or less, for Mrs. McGrail. At the very moment I was reading about the imaginary disposition of her fortune, a number of equally total strangers were arranging it in truth. They had been marshaled by benevolent Little-woods for the protection of the new-rich widow.
"Oh yes, we set up a wet-nurse system to look after our winners," a Littlewoods official later explained to me. "You can't expect a woman, or for that matter a man, to know how to handle a whopping great sum like that if she or he has never coped before with anything more than a small insurance policy. As soon as the win was confirmed we set up an advisory committee to look after her interests. It consists of the head of the trustee department of her local bank, a firm of solicitors, and a firm of stockbrokers who got together with the bank manager and decided on the best investments to be made in her behalf. They meet regularly every quarter to see how things are going. At the beginning this was done: a trust fund of ¬£25,000 set up for each of the two children—they're almost teen-agers now—and a lump sum as a present to her parents. Eventually, she invested ¬£144,000. On the dividends of these investments she could have lived at a rate of some ¬£60 a week."
In fact, she did not live at that rate, and here is an interesting general truth about big prizewinners. With the exception of that occasional human rocket who gets into the headlines and the bankruptcy court, if not worse, the lucky punters are a thrifty, sober lot. Recently, aware that it has been two years since Mrs. McGrail got her money, Littlewoods sent out word that they were ready to take stock and ask questions of the advisory committee as to how things were going. Reporters gathered to ask other questions of the lady herself at the same time. Her financial state stands up nicely under inspection. In May 1959, her investments were worth ¬£177,000; there has, in other words, been a capital appreciation of ¬£33,000. Added to the dividends already mentioned, she is now receiving an income of ¬£40 every day, and all because some two years ago she made a bet of eighteen pence. Mrs. McGrail has consistently stuck to her original decision to stay with her old friends. She bought a bigger house, quite in the proper tradition, but it's on the same road as the old one. Her daughters are in the same schools they used to attend. True, she no longer goes out to work, but to date she still gets one of the daughters to give her a home permanent when she needs one. (Perhaps, however, on the first day after the winning she made an exception to that rule. I am told that it is almost instinctive among lucky ladies to go straight to a hairdresser downtown and order the works.) The Littlewoods man who looks upon Mrs. McGrail as his special charge reports that he thinks she is beginning to realize at last that she isn't poor. After having bought a refrigerator and washing machine, a new sewing machine, a television set and a second-hand car, after having found a cleaning woman to help out with the housework twice a week (though Mrs. McGrail still does all her own cooking), after getting the older girl set in a training course as a shorthand typist, which is her ambition, Mrs. McGrail wants to travel abroad. She is studying Italian with this in mind.
For some time Mrs. McGrail has been the pride and joy of the pools, but one of the stimulating things about this great gambling game is that you never know when another spectacular will turn up. Her coup has already been outdone by other winnings, but the public didn't get quite so much of a boot out of them because they were not single prizes. Or, in other words, one single person didn't scoop the pool. A lot of bettors are like Mr. Harvell and me; they place their bets in partnership. Often they are even more economical than we are. Compared with most of these syndicates, Mr. Harvell and I are dizzy plungers, madly extravagant; the ordinary method is to split up the weekly wager into five or six or 10 parts. Last year several coupons owned by syndicates came in first. Each partner got quite enough as his share to make Mr. Harvell and me misty-eyed with envy, and yet it isn't quite the same. For one thing, as you might expect, this business of splitting the ticket, widespread as the habit is, sometimes leads to trouble. There have been bitter quarrels among winners or would-be winners when one punter accuses another of keeping the whole lot though he wagered only half the bet. However, the British are on the whole very nice people, and such quarrels are exceptional. A happy trust and unanimity obviously prevailed in the case of the 19 policemen who shared out a plummy prize not long ago and, as you might expect, the reporters had a field day. But it was in the first week of October 1959 that even the syndicate stories of pools winnings got a new twist.
On that day the nation was gratified, if inevitably a little envious, to hear of a group win that outbids all such winnings to date. Even the group of policemen had to take a back seat afterward, because no less than 24 young men were included in this one. Of all the monster sums won to date, this was one of the very biggest—¬£252,075, plus an unstipulated number of shillings and pence—and as if all this were not staggering enough, the winners were all members of the Royal Air Force, stationed at Lindholme in Yorkshire. But hardly had Littlewoods' avuncular financial experts brought out their charts and bankbooks when they ran into the sort of snag they do not often encounter.
One of the youngest of the flyers, an 18-year-old named Kenneth Hooton, showed a strangely glum face among all the smiles. The sharers-out naturally put it down to the possibility that he hadn't taken more of a bite of the original bet, but as it developed that he was entitled to ¬£6,633 of the loot, they figured, quite correctly, that their first guess was wrong. Young Hooton's trouble was quite otherwise: he was simply appalled by the discovery that he had won anything at all. He is a strict Methodist who doesn't approve of gambling: what's more, his lay-preacher father approves still less, if that were possible. Kenneth never would have entered the syndicate if he'd had the slightest idea that it might win. He had put in his little bit merely to be matey. Yet the devil had played a dirty trick on him and given him ¬£6,633 he didn't want, just to show he had sinned. Kenneth knew his father was on his way to see him about this, on the heels of the advisory committee. His heart quailed.
Father arrived, and retired with his erring son to talk the matter over. It did not take long. The two soon emerged to give their decision to the waiting public. Kenneth's money, every penny of it, was to be given away to charity.
I am sure I am not the only person in Britain whose reaction to this news was disappointment mingled with impatience. I was unregenerately pleased, therefore, when Kenneth and his father suffered a change of mind. A few days later another announcement came from the Hooton family: Kenneth's money is to be divided. One-third of it will go to charity; the rest is to be invested and used later when the boy is out of service and ready to make a start in life. (I heaved a sigh of relief.) You may be sure that the investment part of it will be lovingly and carefully taken care of by Littlewoods. They take their self-imposed task in this respect very seriously and personally.
"Should a winning client desire to invest in a business," one of such a committee wrote to me, "we always employ expert advice to guide him or her. Recently a winning client wanted to purchase a public house, and it was our pleasant task to discover whether the alcohol and the people who consumed it were in keeping with the price demanded. Through a haze I can report that the public house showed every satisfaction and today is doing a vigorous and rewarding trade in Princes Risborough."
Kenneth Hooton, of course, won't be investing in a pub. Nor will he ever put any of his money back into pools coupons, but Littlewoods and the other firms aren't worrying, since few regulars let moral scruples or anything else distract them from their weekly fling. Consider, for example, the story of the man who was had up, some years ago, for having allegedly kidnaped a girl, beat her, assaulted her and kept her forcibly under restraint for several days. It was a gaudy case altogether—he pleaded guilty, as I recall, and was eventually imprisoned—but what stands out in my mind is the significant detail that he paused in what must have been, to say the very least, a complicated procedure, with the girl tied up and struggling and all, in order to fill in his pools coupon.