The glory of fairytale gambling

    21 May 2016

    Wasn’t this year’s Premier League wonderful? The triumph of low-spending minnows Leicester City over megabucks bullies Man City, Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal cheered even the most melancholy souls. It showed why, as Simon Barnes put it in The Spectator, ‘sport has such a hold over the world’s imagination’. We are all Foxes now, and so on.

    In our materialistic and acquisitive age, however, a perfect sporting romance needs gambling glory attached. We don’t just want to see the hardworking underdogs defeat the big boys; we want to know that some plucky punter took on the arrogant bookmakers, bet on a hugely improbable result, and brought home lots of dosh.

    On this front, the Leicester story did not let us down. Ladbrokes confirmed that 47 customers had backed the Foxes at 5,000- 1. A number of punters cashed out early to take home big prizes, but a fair few held on for the mega-win. One lucky so-and-so, Ladbrokes tell me, won £100,000 from a £20 bet. ‘We’ve been taking bets for 130 years and we have never ever seen anything come even close to this,’ said a spokesman. Isn’t life beautiful?

    The website Business Insider has compiled a list of 11 ‘mental’ things that book-makers considered less likely than Leicester’s triumph, including Arsenal sacking their manager Arsène Wenger and replacing him with Piers Morgan (2,500-1) and Simon Cowell becoming the next Prime Minister (500-1). Mind you, after the rise of Donald Trump, that last possibility ought not to be entirely discounted.

    The tabloids — which increasingly depend on gambling advertising to fill their pages — have been busy rehashing stories of other great bets that have come off. There’s the tale of Fred Craggs, a Yorkshireman who won a million from a 50p eight-horse accumulator. Or there’s the man who stuck £5 on Mali at 1,000-1 to come back from four-nil down against Angola with 11 minutes left in the match, which they duly did. My favourite has to be Adrian Hayward from Newbury, who had a dream that the Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso would score a goal from inside his own half. He went down to his local bookies and bet £200 that his dream would come true that season, at 125-1. Sure enough, in an FA Cup match against Luton, Alonso lobbed the keeper from 80 yards out.

    Bookmakers enjoy telling these tales almost as much we like to hear them — not least because it keeps idiot romantics like me coming back to lose more. It’s how that ‘tax on stupidity’ which is the National Lottery works. Moreover, the bookies much prefer outsiders to win. Ladbrokes may have had to fork out £3 million because Leicester won the Premier League, but they gained a lot more because the heavily backed favourites failed.

    Fairytale gambling is not just for mugs, though. After all, however improbable Leicester’s victory may have been, those 5,000-1 odds were far too generous. There have been only 25 Premier League seasons so far. Does anybody think it would take 5,000 more for the Premier League to give us a similarly incredible story? Look at other sporting contests. The son of a vicar, Danny Willett, just won golf’s greatest prize, The Masters, having been priced at a much more sensible 125-1.

    My point is this: while it’s true to say that in general bookies tend to price highly competitive sports markets right, favouritism inevitably contains an element of human bias. Crowds may be wise, but people are sheep, so they tend to assume that the most likely eventuality is more likely than it is.

    The impossible happens more than we think. Take Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour party. Betting a little on long shots is a better strategy than betting a lot on short odds.

    Top tip for tipplers

    Does anyone have shares in prosecco?It is reportedly enjoying a massive boom. More and more drinkers now accept that Italian spumante can be just as good, if not better, than champagne — and Italian winemakers now can’t make the stuff fast enough. Too late to profit, I suppose: that investment cork has popped.

    But what about crémant, the discerning drinker’s cheap French sparkler? As prosecco goes through the roof, people will surely begin to appreciate that a crémant de Bourgogne is five times more delicious than most prosecco, cut-price champagne, or those overhyped English sparkling whites. Vineyards Direct, who are not paying me to say this, have a fantastic Cave de Lugny 2012 for £13.95. Buy crates of the stuff and watch its value soar.