English risk odds on oddest of wagers

Gambling: Britons are increasingly eager to place `novelty bets' on reality TV, Gerbil Roulette or Britney Spears in the White House.

February 07, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Someday by the year 2030, when Congress is in joint session for the State of the Union address, the president will be announced and in she will walk. Her name will be Britney Spears.

Wanna bet?

Some do, and the gambling houses of Britain are only too happy to take the money of anybody willing to plunk down a pound or two on a President Britney - or just about anything else they can think to bet on.

If someone wants to wager that his grandmother will live to age 100, it's not hard to find a bookmaker who will give odds. Someone thinks Elvis will shake up Wimbledon and make an appearance at the tennis finals? There's a gambling house to take the bet. Some put up money on how many sips of water the chancellor will take while addressing the House of Commons.

"Novelty betting," as it has become known, is on the increase here. Sometimes bookmakers come up with the offbeat bets; other times it's the gamblers who come up with some event - or nonevent - and approach the gambling houses for odds.

"If I lived in a vault and based what was going on outside solely on the bets we get, I'd think I live in a very strange country," said Warren Lush, the chief oddsmaker at Ladbrokes Limited, which has about 2,000 betting houses in Britain. "I'd also know a lot of what's going on, in terms of trends and specific events, even before the newspapers."

Novelty betting is a reflection of British society, and the picture is not always encouraging.

European awards for art and literature are popular sources of novelty bets, but Britons are increasingly eager to bet on what they know best: reality television shows such as British versions of Pop Idol and Big Brother.

"I don't want to be the one to call it the dumbing down of Britain," Lush said. "But I think it's the dumbing down of Britain."

For years, people have bet on English football - soccer - and for longer than that on horses and dogs. Wagers can be placed in any of about 8,000 betting houses around the country.

The willingness of bookmakers to accept novelty bets roughly coincides with the boom in Internet gambling and other opportunities to lose money.

A gambling channel called Avago, part of the Sky satellite service, offers a number of games people can play on television via their remote control. Among them is Gerbil Roulette, in which rodents are spun on a wheel and bettors put money on which numbered house they'll stagger into.

No one seems certain precisely when novelty betting began, though Rupert Adams of the gambling house William Hill said he would wager that it started when a man named David Threlfall walked into one of the company's shops in 1961, wanting to bet on man walking on the moon before 1970.

He was laughed at and ridiculed - and given 1,000-to-1 odds for his 10-pound bet.

In 1969, he collected 10,000 pounds, then worth about $23,900.

(For some idea of how loud the laughter might have been, consider: The odds of Spears capturing the White House - she's pretty sure she's a Republican, by the way - were put at 500-to-1, far better than the odds of a man on the moon.)

Such wagering still makes up only a fraction of the profits for the gambling houses, but the proportion has been increasing. Gambling houses say they don't have statistics on how much money is wagered on novelty bets, but Pop Idol, the British version of American Idol, has been a hit with gamblers (or "punters" here) wanting to put down a bet (or a "flutter") on who might be voted off and who might win.

"Easily, the market has doubled since reality television became so big," Lush said. "I'm not sure what that says about British society, but I'm sure it says something - and probably something unfavorable."

Bookmakers nearly took a bath in red ink on last month's Celebrity Big Brother when punters bet in big numbers on Kenzie, a one-named kid rapper. Unluckily for the bettors, Bez, a self-confessed drug abuser who used to dance with the band Happy Mondays, was the winner; Kenzie was runner-up.

"The punters are a mixed bag," said Adams. "Some want to go for the outrageous odds and win a lot for a little. Others will go for the favorites and try to win a little with a lot."

Kevin Salway, a proud and proudly optimistic father in Hertfordshire, recently slapped down 100 pounds to bet that his daughter, Emma, would become the first female Formula One driver since the 1970s.

It doesn't matter to her dad that she's now racing karts or that the bookmaker disagreed, granting 500-to-1 odds.

"I would have put 1,000 pounds on her happily had they let me," Salway said. "You know, she really is quite good. Quite a few people have noticed."

Perhaps the most popular novelty bet has become popular enough that it's really not much of a novelty any longer: living to 100.

People bet mostly on their grandmothers making it to the century mark, but others bet on themselves, hoping for a nice payoff should they get there. The bad news is, the payoff isn't what it used to be; the good news is, more people reach that age.

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