Bookies strengths and weaknesses

To place your bets profitably, you need to know the bookies’ strengths and weaknesses – and, believe us, they all have weaknesses. Betting expert Jamie Reid takes you on a voyage of discovery.

One of Al Pacino’s best tips in The Godfather is to ‘keep your friends close…and your enemies closer.’ Punters would do well to heed the Godfather’s advice.

As friendly and lovable as many bookmakers and bookmaking representatives are, they’re still ‘the old enemy’. If you want to beat them, you need to familiarise yourself with the areas they price up well and badly in the hope that one day you can exploit them to your advantage.

The late John Banks, a famously flamboyant Glaswegian bookie, used to joke that, ‘Punters shouldn’t be upset when Ladbrokes refuse to lay them a bet. They should be worried when they do.’ Banks was a notorious self-publicist who loved to mock his rivals – but his comment about Ladbrokes was soundly based.

‘The Magic Sign’, as Ladbrokes are known, are renowned among their peers for their almost uncanny ability to accurately price up a football match or horse race. If Ladbrokes are offering the best price by several points about a supposedly fancied Derby runner, say, that should be interpreted as a warning sign rather than an encouragement to bet.

Other bookmakers have other specialities. Some appear to have none, but that’s just fine. As the former Racing Post guru Mark Coton observed, ‘Value betting is partly created by the folly and ignorance of others.’

This is the firm to be most wary of. Ladbrokes have a long history of taking bets from highstakes gamblers and it is no surprise that the corporate descendents of their founders retain guile, nerves and contacts and well as the traditional command of odds and percentages.

The public face of Ladbrokes used to be their press officer Mike Dillon who always seemed to be on chummy terms with every owner, trainer and, dare one say it, jockey, in the business. Dillon – a bright, personable man with a passionate love of racing and football – is particularly clued up about the big Irish stables. Dillon has particularly good relations with John Magnier’s Coolmore Stud (he introduced Sir Alex Ferguson to Magnier) and Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle stable. He understands the Irish genius for not only training and riding horses, but also for using them to land knock-out blows in the betting market.

Whenever Ballydoyle have a prospective runner in a classic or big Group One race, Ladbrokes’ odds will be one of the best guides to its chances. If they are significantly shorter than their rivals, back the horse at the best price available elsewhere. If the horse is easy to back with Ladbrokes, it’s not fancied.

The Magic Sign also excel at football betting, thanks to their legendary principal football odds compiler John Jones. Ladbrokes always take a view on football and Jones doesn’t need to rely on the dark arts of the bookmaking trade to shape his judgements. Punters spying a Ladbrokes quote of maybe 11/5 about a decent Premiership team away from home, compared to 7/4 elsewhere, may think they’ve found a winner, but the number of days in a season when Jones calls it wrong scarcely runs to double figures.

Pay close attention to Ladbrokes’ footie and racing markets, especially where Ballydoyle runners are concerned, and let their knowledge lead you to value elsewhere.

Coral have led the way in the UK recently in offering ante-post betting on meetings like Cheltenham and Royal Ascot. For that they are to be congratulated. It’s possible to find a horse that’s been laid out for something like the Supreme Novices Hurdle or the Cheltenham Bumper trading at 6/1 in Ireland three months before the Festival but on offer at more than twice those odds with the Barking-based firm. Whether they are interested in taking serious money at the advertised prices is a matter of opinion but wily punters at least have a chance of embarrassing them.

What is not in dispute is that Coral’s football odds compiler John Wright is a shrewd and well-respected judge. His assessments may not be quite as foolproof as John Jones’ but they are still a useful point of reference for mere mortals like the rest of us.

The surprising thing about firms like Coral and Ladbrokes, though, is that when it comes to sports like rugby, cricket and American football they often seem no better informed than the average well-read fan. Nobody in Britain understands gridiron like the Las Vegas odds makers yet Coral will often go out on a limb, giving a team something like a 3.5 point handicap start when they may only be getting a 0.5 point start in Vegas. Take heed and take advantage.

Respect their football prices but try to catch them out on the NFL and on their ante-post odds on a Cheltenham-bound Irish novice hurdler.

The affable Graham Sharpe, Hills’ chief PR man, is the past master of novelty markets and topical betting and a genius at getting his firm’s name in the papers. Don’t be fooled though: there’s real expertise beneath the humour. Sharpe’s political antennae are well developed thanks to excellent connections at Westminster and in the media and any move by Hills against Tony Blair’s political longevity or George Bush’s re-election chances should be carefully noted.

Elsewhere, Sharpe’s main passion is football and here too he’s rarely wide of the mark when issuing his entertaining ‘Sack Race’ odds, speculating on which of various Premiership managers will be first or next for the chop.

The negative aspects of the Hills approach can be summed up in two words: David Hood. The indestructible ‘Hoody’ is sometimes wheeled out on BBC Breakfast News on Grand National day. Hood will often talk about the ‘massive liabilities’ Hills incurred following plunges on some horse or other. Just how much money does it take with Hills to significantly shorten up a price? £5,000? £500? Or £50? Cynics would suspect it’s the latter.

Follow their lead on the Sack Race and political betting but don’t fall for all the promotional guff about massive gambles in big handicaps.

The 52-year-old Victor Chandler may spend more time in Spain and Gibraltar these days than he does at Ascot and Cheltenham but he remains the king of the high rollers and a fearless gambler who, in the words of a friend, ‘Wants to lay every losing favourite and back every over-priced winner too.’

Victor’s grandfather Bill Chandler was a legendary bookie-punter who won over £200,000 on the 1944 Derby (that’s a figure in the millions in today’s money). In keeping with the family tradition, the VC client list comprises all the big players – they bet with Chandler because they know they can get on.

The rest of us should always scrutinise the firm’s odds because it takes serious money, often from well-connected sources, for them to significantly shorten up a price. Punters should also monitor the positions of Don Stewart, Victor’s astute golf trader and Joe Fagan, the firm’s top football odds compiler. Fagan is a canny Scotsman and devoted churchgoer with a reverence for value betting.

Follow the VC market moves, especially on racing, and think carefully before opposing them where football and golf are concerned.

Premier Bet’s founder Tony Bloom was formerly trading director in charge of football at the Victor Chandler International offices in Gibraltar. A brilliant statistician and high-stakes poker player, Bloom is an extremely shrewd professional punter, especially where football is concerned. At the climax of the 1998 World Cup he advised Victor Chandler to bet their entire profit of the competition on France in the final – he won.

Bloom’s other great love is American football and he’s renowned for taking time out to study the form near warm weather NFL training camps in Florida and California during the British winter.

But despite all this, there is value to be found. Premier Bet, who have pioneered Asian handicap betting in the UK, is still a relatively new company, eager to attract customers. Sometimes they will open themselves up and take a position about a match or tournament that a bookmaker less hungry for business wouldn’t dare to contemplate. That can give the punters an advantage.

Study their markets closely and respect Bloom’s judgement, but remember that from time to time he’ll give you a chance. If they ever start trading on the NFL they are likely to be a lot sharper than the Big Three.

There is no such person as Stan James. The Oxfordshire based firm is named after its founder Steve Fisher, his wife Anne and a third partner now deceased.

The company opened its first betting shop in 1983 but were quick to see the potential of credit and debit card betting and established an offshore office in Gibraltar even before Victor Chandler had moved there.

Unlike the Big Three they don’t field any PR men making ludicrous claims about massive liabilities, but when it comes to two sports – tennis and cricket – they beat the big boys every time. Most bookies don’t like tennis. There are only two runners and they can’t see a way to make the same amount of profit as they would on golf or racing, but James specialise at it.

‘You’ve got to be bang up to date, finding the news and finding the gossip,’ explains principal odds compiler Gordon Kasky. ‘A week before the French Open, I was watching Marat Safin on Moroccan TV and I could see that he had a giant blister on his racket hand that was bound to hamper him in Paris. It’s all about finding the edges.’

When it comes to cricket, the Big Three have tended to employ a motley collection of ex-county pro’s to mark their card. In contrast, James have a clued-up team of three cricket odds compilers. As a result, they lead the field at pricing up one day tournaments, Test series and overseas tours.

Go first to their tennis markets every time and then try to get on at bigger odds elsewhere.

The head offices of Bet365 are in Stokeon- Trent and you don’t have to be a smart alec southerner to observe that the old Potteries town is hardly up there with Monte Carlo as a haven of gambling glamour. Don’t hold that against them though. This family-owned firm, which opened its first betting shop in 1974, moved in to telephone and internet betting three years ago and as the name implies, they are a hyper-active outfit trading seven days a week, 365 days a year and on every kind of market imaginable.

Sometimes that eagerness to be first with the prices can lead to overgenerous odds that punters can exploit. The company’s chief odds compiler Steve Freeth is a Black Country boy himself who loves his football and is particularly knowledgeable about West Midlands teams such as Wolves, West Brom, Aston Villa and Walsall. Freeth industriously prices up every new managerial job and every Conference shoot-out and European game. He’s also recently introduced Formula One handicap betting to liven up the Grand Prix season. When it comes to sports like horse racing, rugby union and the NFL, however, Bet365 give their customers a chance.

A firm who will quote you a price on just about anything at any point in the day or week. Watch their football odds on Midlands teams and derbies and try to catch them out on racing and the NFL.

The ‘Nanny’ are included in this list not because of any obvious or outstanding area of expertise but because in many respects, particularly racing and football, they don’t seem to have any.

Their current PR man, Paul Petrie, sounds like an astute Scotsman and they used to employ the likeable Rob Hartnett who is now with Betdaq.

Only a few years ago, though, they had a fellow quoting odds to the press who appeared to be the archetypal dim-witted ex-public schoolboy. He was presumably considered too slow for the City but also seemed to be totally clueless about racing, jump racing in particular.

Long may they continue to employ such charmingly useless chaps and let’s encourage them to run more ante-post markets, in the hope of giving us even more chances to ambush them.

Take advantage of The Tote’s generosity whenever you can – but don’t sound too smart or too eager if you want to get on.

Sporting Index describe themselves, with some justification, as the world leaders in spread betting and they are certainly the premier cheeky chappies of the medium. The Sporting chairman Compton Hellyer may seem to be a genial cove out of a PG Wodehouse novel and Sporting’s PR man Wally Pyrah is an effortless charmer, but beneath that smiling facade they employ some very shrewd characters.

Chief executive Richard Glynn is a hard-headed rugby enthusiast and Oxford-educated lawyer turned city man. Sporting’s convivial rugby trader Alastair Hunter is famous for picking off less well-informed colleagues with rival spread betting firms. Sporting are also very strong on tennis and their tournament indices, calculated by astute trader Nat Woods, closely match Stan James for accuracy.

If Sporting has a weakness it seems to be with cricket. They committed one of the industry’s great howlers when wildly underestimating the likely total number of wides in the 1999 World Cup. The trader who was responsible for that debacle has since moved on to another firm but there’s no reason to believe his successors, however likeable they may be, are any better informed than their counterparts with the fixed-odds bookies.

Sporting’s novelty markets are designed more for publicity than as a sound investment opportunity for serious gamblers. It’s generally wiser to stick to the core supremacy markets and areas like seasonal and tournament points tallies, runs, goals, tries and so on, if you want to get ahead.

Don’t bet on their light-hearted promotions. Look for winning pointers on tennis and rugby and possible misjudgements on the cricketing front.

The shaven headed Paul Cashman, or ‘Cashie’ as he’s known to his mates in Cork City, is one of the most knowledgeable judges of National Hunt racing in Britain or Ireland. Cashman goes up with his ante-post Cheltenham odds on everything bar the handicaps in the summer before the Festival. By mid-September there will have been the first serious stirrings in the market.

Any Cork or Tipperary-owned or trained horse near the top of Cashman’s lists approaching Christmas is sure to be strongly fancied and to already have been backed (often in four-figure sums) by smart people who know all about running plans and potential improvement. Look for the discrepancies with English firms when they come out with their odds and with a little bit of native cunning you should be able to snap up the value.

Cashmans, like the populist and entertaining Paddy Power chain, also reflect the traditional preferences of the Irish market by offering a quarter the odds a place on the first five on big handicaps, along with assorted cashback deals on major races and events.

Follow their ante-post Cheltenham odds throughout the winter. Look out for well-backed and well-regarded novices and bumper horses from stables that may not be so well known in the UK. Brave Inca and Total Enjoyment fitted the bill to a tee in 2003.

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