Interview with a Vampire II: The Corona Wars

A little while ago, and due to a complete absence of knowledge on the subject, we posted an interview with noted Twitter user and professional gambler Innocent Bystander about gambling in cricket, and more widely across sport. Given all that has gone on over the last four months, it seemed a good time to revisit some of those issues and find out how life is for someone who doesn’t just watch live sport, but relies on it for his living. So inbetween the usual words of abuse that pass between us, he agreed to be asked some more questions about cricket, gambling and the future of both.

I began by asking him about the last few months, and how it has affected him, especially given his job:

“Well it pretty much shut down everything. No sport means no trading, and no trading means no income. It’s alright for those who get all that Rishi [Sunak – UK Chancellor of the Exchequer] money, but for the rest of us who got nothing, not so much. Fortunately I had some money saved to fall back on, but it was a long 3 months to say the least”.

Yep, this is sounding all too familiar to me as well. There has been an assumption in too many places that no-one has been left out, but it’s far from the truth. Normal life is one thing, but the nature of gambling being addictive on the one hand, and also offering the dream of a way out for those who are in financial distress led to troubling thoughts on several levels. It hasn’t been greatly discussed in the mainstream, but it must have been noticeable when sport returned that there was a rush to place bets, with a spike in income for the bookmakers. Problem gambling too hasn’t been highlighted in the lockdown period, but it is impossible to imagine that it all stopped in that period, so what happened and where did they all go?

“I probably chat about it most on Twitter, and the one thing about gamblers (professional or otherwise) there is that apparently no-one ever loses! It is always interesting how gambling gets put in with obesity, drinking and smoking as the vices that the government has to clamp down on. Roll all those in with the pandemic and the only headline that I was surprised not to see was gambling gives you coronavirus. Everything else seems to”

If the shutdown had a direct effect on gamblers, it clearly had just as big an effect on the gambling companies, and on the sports that are supported by, or even rely on them. Many governing bodies detailed the scale of their potential losses, and if in some instances the figures were inflated by counting all revenue sources to all levels of sport, it clearly had and is having an enormous impact. Sport has started to return, but behind closed doors, and the postponement of the test events with spectators present has removed that potential revenue stream for the time being at least. There has to be the suspicion that the relationship with gambling was behind the rapidity with which certain events were scheduled as soon as they were permitted:

“Well it’s been pretty obvious that a lot of sports were rushed back. Something like horse racing has always been primarily about gambling, and 10 over cricket was created pretty much entirely for the benefit of the betting industry – there was only so much virtual sports they could show to give people their fix! Remember that when the Cricketer ran their virtual cricket tournament, people were even trying to bet on that as well”

Ah yes, the 10 over cricket leagues. Last time we spoke Innocent Bystander predicted that these would grow in popularity around the world, and while no one could have imagined a global pandemic coming along to give that change a particular turbocharge, It’s interesting to see that among the first returning cricket has been the likes of the European Cricket League – amateur sport, televised and promoted. In a pure sporting sense, it’s been intriguing to watch a highly variable standard, but from a betting perspective, no one knew anything about the teams or players in advance. Given the sheer volume of money that has been wagered on the outcome, there must have been some serious research needed into who was playing and how they were likely to get on?

“It was certainly very surprising to see the volume of money traded on essentially amateur sport, but then it was the only show in town at the time, so with hindsight it probably wasnt a shock. I actually found assessing the quality of the participants relatively easy. The teams, players and tournaments had quite a lot of previous seasons statistics available online to review. So, with a little bit of work it produced a good return. Without giving too much away I tried to assess the strengths and weakness in each side, and rank each of them based on that. But you’d be surprised how much a teams odds could shorten just because they had a name that appealed to be people such as Zalmi or the Super Kings”.

Obviously there has been a great deal of controversy about the Cyprus event, did that surprise you (here I put in a note to be careful about what he said, on the grounds of not particularly wanting to receive a nasty letter from a lawyer)?

“What did surprise me was how blatant everything was. Nothing was subtle, and it’s been swept under the carpet pretty quickly by the league – the very next day they expelled the side involved and expunged their record from their website; then reforming with the remaining teams and a new schedule. The shocking thing for me was the lack of any kind of statement from the league – it doesnt exactly send out a message about the integrity of their competition, if anything it says the opposite.”

Everyone is wondering at what point things will return to normal, but the disruption across myriad industries raises questions as to whether change is transitory for the period of the pandemic, or whether long term changes are likely. Sport is perhaps one of the most visible industries there is, and given gambling is ancillary to that, I wondered how the longer term would look?

“The only real differences are the changes to the calendar and the behind closed doors nature of pretty much all of them for the immediate future. The fake crowd noise makes football watchable but in cricket the lack of variance in the level of the hum means it can be more irritating than helpful. As for things returning to normal, nothing gets there until the virus is suppressed and under control. I certainly wont be travelling to watch cricket anywhere else in the world for a while now”

As someone who works in the travel industry, this is the last thing I wanted to hear, albeit it’s not so surprising for many, but when it is said from someone who travels to watch England so frequently, it’s pretty depressing. It would also signal that supporters are likely to become even less important in the future, and the mere lip service they are paid at present will become even more the exception, in favour of the broadcasters.

“I probably need to flesh that out a bit – when I go to events I always book well in advance, get the best seats I can and stay at nice hotels. Now with all the uncertainty I cannot be sure that what I’m booking will end up happening. It might be postponed, or rearranged, even late on when there is a major financial penalty for any changes. I have been caught up in disruption in the past – the Mumbai bombings when I was booked into the Mumabi Taj Hotel meaning I had to rearrange to Mohali, and the 2010 T20 World Cup in the Caribbean where an Icelandic volcano decided to mess with all the flights. I had no family back then so it didn’t really matter that much being messed around – but with a 2 year old now I am less keen with last minute changes.

“I always used to joke that fans were an inconvenience to cricket authorities what with having to schedule events well in advance and stick to them – they would prefer it without those pesky fans getting in the way in grounds….”

I suspect that’s right, but if we move to a situation where fans won’t travel because of uncertainty, and governing bodies feel the freedom to change because fans aren’t travelling, it would likely signal the end of the kinds of mass following we have become used to seeing. The needs of travelling supporters have rarely been a priority, but they badly need to be now. Moving on, when last we talked, we discussed the whole matter of TV advertising, and since then there have been moves to remove pre-watershed live sports gambling commercials. Yet it doesn’t seem to have happened, so I asked what what was his understanding of the position there:

“To be honest I’m not too sure. I thought that football was banning adverts during matches but that doesnt seem to have taken place. In fact, it does seem to be wall to wall betting adverts again – only now they seem to have lost Ray Winstone’s large head…maybe that was the trade off! Either way, not much has happened, maybe there are only so many pressure groups headlines to go round”

As ever, my thanks to Innocent Bystander for being patient with my silly questions, and still not objecting to the titles I give these pieces – you can find him and follow him on Twitter @InnoBystander

Interview with a Vampire

Cricket has an interesting reputation in the minds of many followers of the game – somehow the saying “it’s not cricket” seems to speak to a kind of wishful thinking about the way the game was, and what it is today.   In some ways, the association of modern cricket with gambling, both legal and illegal is viewed as being new, when it is anything but given the origins of the sport.  Some of the older English clubs have records detailing huge crowds attending matches played by the leading performers of the time with details of the stakes involved, and the pressure to create fixed laws derived as much as anything from a desire to ensure that the gambling was run according to proper rules rather than anything else.  To that end, there is an irony about the horror at the gambling promotion associated with modern cricket.  There are a number of issues here, the corruption and match fixing that blights the sport today would be entirely familiar to the pioneers of the game, as would the volume of it from spectators and observers.  What has changed is that with the rise of the internet it is immediately accessible to millions, and the promotion of it therein has dramatically increased.

On that basis, an article about gambling and cricket seemed to be one that might be quite interesting.  Only there’s a problem.

I don’t gamble.

I don’t have a moral crusade against it or anything, it’s just that I’m not terribly interested.  A recent work trip to Macau – the Las Vegas of the east – realised a grand total of 0 minutes spent gambling.  It’s just not my thing.  Therefore attempting to write an article on a subject about which I know absolutely nothing could prove somewhat challenging.  What to do?  Fortunately, there’s a well known Twitter account run by a cricket fan who is also a professional gambler, and thus, following a bit of discussion and claims that he’s a numbers and not a words man, Innocent Bystander agreed to have a bit of a chat.  The outcome was that of a series of extremely naïve questions, and very knowledgeable answers.  I began by asking him him what impact gambling has on the game of cricket – does it help drive the game or is it incidental?

“Cricket wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for gambling, the first laws were laid down to try to legislate a game that was entirely driven by gambling.  Today I would say that in a lot of jurisdictions gambling is the prime reason an event exists.  Often you will find at some matches the ‘crowd’ consists solely of gamblers as huge sums are traded on the game.  T20 is a bigger draw for the general cricket fan, but it’s also a prime vehicle for gambling.  In fact I’d say 20 overs a side is too long, and I would expect to see 10 over a side games appear over the next few years (as is happening in Dubai this winter) – more games, more opportunities to punt, and the appeal to the cricket fan is a side issue, which is why ideas like this that seem pointless to you take off.

“That’s why One Day Internationals became so popular in the subcontinent.  If India were to lose, so what – there’s always another game tomorrow or the day after.  Lose a Test match on the other hand and it’s a week or two before the next.  Can you imagine how quickly a 10 over or 5 over match would be forgotten if the next one starts in 20 minutes time?”

A fairly depressing answer, but one that has a horrible ring of truth to it.  There’s also the implication that cricket gambling has reached a point where it’s so big it can materially affect not just the volume but the format of the game.  Which made me curious how big cricket gambling had become:

“Well, the individual markets are huge, but there are a relatively small number of games – which makes it different from sports such as football, racing or tennis.  Some of the biggest markets on Betfair have been cricket matches though, for example the New Zealand – South Africa World Cup semi-final.  This summer the Champions Trophy matches had over £100 million matched on Betfair, and Betfair is fraction of the world market, and that’s before you even consider the illegal betting in South Asia, which dwarfs that many times over”

The scale of the illegal betting market in cricket really came to the fore with the Hansie Cronje affair, and corruption in cricket has been a live issue ever since.  Players get banned, and the ICC’s anti-corruption unit have, shall we say, been rather busy over the years, with their efficacy in combating it very much in question.  To that end, would that be noticeable to someone who does it legally for a living?

“Hugely so.  If it wasn’t for the illegal betting the volumes put through Betfair would be miniscule on cricket.  Money flows from the subcontinent to Dubai and into Betfair.  It’s impossible to trace but fully washed, ironed and hung out to dry.  The average man on the street in India might bet 10 rupees with his local bookie and he then hedges those bets through the illegal bigger bookies who then push their money into the sub accounts of large Betfair account holders.  That money flows both ways using the Hawala networks”.

In mentioning Betfair, it brought to mind Ed Hawkins book, “Bookie, Gambler, Fixer, Spy”, which detailed the underground betting markets in India and how the operate.  With something like this, the general readership tend to swallow whole what is written, because it’s outside their experience.  So how true does Innocent Bystander think it is?

“I’d say there are elements of truth, but the Indian bookies do tend to ‘big up’ their part to make them look more important than they actually are.  Ed does have a book to sell after all. So if there’s no story, there’s no sales. Let’s call it ‘Vaughaning’ it up a bit…”

Ouch.

So what form of cricket would make the most money I wondered, might it be T20 or ODIs, or even domestic cricket…?

“The weather!”

Ask a silly question.

On these pages, the cricket supporters tend to be Test match ones, the site traffic plummets when the one dayers come along, and since gambling appears to be directly influencing the game, is Test match gambling the weak link?

“No, I wouldn’t say that.  All formats are increasing, betting on tests is a long game, with the markets ebbing and flowing rather than violently gyrating in the space of a ball.  Personally, I would say betting on tests is, like the game itself, the purest form of betting”

If there’s one indication about the scale of sports gambling these days, it has to be the amount of TV advertising about it.  It’s seemingly constant, every break represents another opportunity to offer up some special odds, and encourage people to do more than enjoy the sport for its own sake.  To that end, and given it’s his business, it might be expected that there would be no objection to it.  Far from it:

“It’s pretty poor isn’t it?  My wife loves tennis and watches a lot, and every advert on tennis is for gambling.  She does rather wonder why she is deemed to be a target market!  But it’s important to remember that adverts on TV aren’t looking for the professional punter at all, they’re marketing to the casual gambler, which then leads to problem gambling, and despite all their guff about protecting the customer these are exactly the mugs the bookies want, as they will give them all their money.”

Mmmm.  This is why I don’t gamble.  Some years ago I had our club’s overseas cricketer living with me for the summer.  He was a professional gambler too, and used to play late at night in particular, because it was easy to take the cash off those who would come online when they’d had a few drinks. I didn’t blame him then and I don’t now, but it rather reinforced the image of professionals lying in wait to fleece me.  Presumably given the degree of promotion it must still be growing as an industry?

“It’s growing faster and faster and will continue to do so until the government has the balls to actually legislate properly.  As it is, if betting is legalised in India and USA we haven’t even begun seen the potential explosion that will come.”

Of course, the other element of the advertising is the sheer number of ex-pros or media types being involved.  Is that a problem?

“It’s about as insidious as the relationship between ex players and the media!”

Interesting point that.  The question over self-interest of the ex-players in the media, especially those who have player management companies with whom they are associated has long been criticised, not least by us.  It may be worth watching closely for any apparently innocent gambling related comments from summarisers and commentators.

Given the old saying about people being prepared to gamble on two flies climbing up a wall, is there no end to this?  Will even fantasy sports end up with a sizeable market?  It seems to have a foothold in the US.

 “I’m not so sure on that.  But interestingly  I had a chat with an ACSU chap [Anti-Corruption and Security Unit].  He was in Dubai for the pre-season T20 hitarounds they have out there and he gave the usual speech about corruption and approaches.  Over the next day or so he was approached by a dozen or more county players panicking about approaches they had received from social media.  Fearful about an epidemic of potential fixing, the ACSU delved more deeply only to discover all the approaches were related to Fantasy Sports Leagues!!!  Is this a danger? No, but there is money punted on this”.

This was the point at which my postage stamp knowledge of gambling expired.  So casting around for one final question, I finally hit on a brainwave:

Why don’t you like Alastair Cook?

“Because he is such a handsome devil…”

Follow  @InnoBystander for betting observations, pithy comments and getting into arguments with Indian cricket fans.  My thanks to him for answering my silly questions and not objecting to the rather cruel title I gave this piece.