SI Vault
Emily Hahn
November 30, 1959
Half a million dollars deep, it entices some 17 million Englishmen each week to try their luck in predicting the fortunes of football—and gaining a fortune of their own
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November 30, 1959

Britain's Golden Pool

Half a million dollars deep, it entices some 17 million Englishmen each week to try their luck in predicting the fortunes of football—and gaining a fortune of their own

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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.

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