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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"Speed plus accuracy is the aim. And some of the girls can check as many as 1,000 coupons a day. If you have made a correct forecast, your coupon is torn from the string tying it to the others and handed to a supervisor. Later it will be checked again.

"Naturally, every girl hopes to mark a fortune-winning coupon. As soon as any big winner is discovered, up goes her hand and over comes the supervisor. The coupon is extracted and a duplicate left in its place. The original goes to the claims department. If your telegram claiming a win arrives before your coupon has been checked, the pools can find your entry form among all the other millions within five minutes and pass it through to 'claims.'

"Every big winner is visited. In fairness to the losers, the pools firms want to ensure that every winning entry is valid.... All this happens on Monday. If everything is in order another security man will return on Wednesday with the winner's cheque."

One of the popular dailies has gone into more detail as to the security: "First of all the investigation bureau study your winning coupon. They check that it has gone through the system of code-stamping. They get hold of all the back copies of your investments they can find. They study what your system has been; whether you have suddenly changed it; whether you have altered your investment; whether you have suddenly started posting your coupon late in the week. They are looking for funny business."

This security is an essential part of the proceedings. So much money is involved that a firm can't be too careful.

Everything must be checked, including receipt of the postal orders. From time to time in the old days, a girl would filch one of the enclosures. She doesn't get much chance to do it nowadays; her petty crime is almost sure to be exposed in the search for bigger game. Security officers—Little-woods was employing 168 of them at the last count, most of them ex-policemen—keep an eye on things in general, and spring frequent surprise checks on the staff, for it is one of the favorite dreams of racketeers to trick the pools, and even otherwise respectable people have attempted to work a change on the system. Experience has taught the firms most of their methods. An attack from the inside, based on a partnership between the bettor and some checker, is presumably prevented by unexpected swoops, searches that are constantly made of checkers' clothing and handbags, as well as those of people working on the machines and in the canteens. Nobody is allowed into a Littlewoods building on Saturday after kickoff time. Nobody inside can go out and then return. No telephone calls are accepted. No one indoors can sneak out to his car in the parking lot to listen to scores on the radio.

As for outside methods, it seems unlikely that the most determined crook could suborn a large number of football teams and bribe them to throw the games all in one Saturday afternoon. Less ambitious attempts, such as sending in coupons with false postmarks (they've got to come by mail), are made every week, but they aren't successful. Somebody did nearly manage once to do something like that; he disguised himself as a postman and slipped an envelope, falsely postmarked, in through the crack of a window, but it didn't work, and now there simply aren't any cracks at Littlewoods where a man could push an envelope in. The unofficial openings are wired.

All in all, it seems simpler just to fill in your coupon, the legal way, and take your chances and get your kicks like everybody else—within the law. When you take everything into account, these kicks are considerable, anyway. It's no use talking to a confirmed pools addict about the numerical chances against him. I find it interesting, but not discouraging, that there are 1,040,465,790 ways to select eight matches from 54. So what? It just might be Mr. Harvell and me next time, mightn't it? It's got to be somebody. Every week somebody wins, that's the point.

When he does, a number of interesting things happen. The firm takes a genuine avuncular interest in the people who get smashing wins. Littlewoods shows them the best way to invest their money. It does this immediately, as soon as the money is paid over and before the winners can begin the old nightclub-and-champagne routine, and it must be admitted that in so doing they are wise as well as kindly, since such spectacular winnings, followed by spectacular dissipation, might well strengthen the hands of the highly vocal minority opposed to the whole fabric of the pools.

This is how it happens. The pools firm makes sure first, of course, that the winner is a genuine winner—no monkey business on his part and no mistake in the office. Part of the investigation calls for a written statement from the winner, with a brief biography and description of whatever prizes he has won in the past, if any. When the firm is satisfied that it's all aboveboard, the money is paid over.

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