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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The football season—and by football in this case, in England, I mean soccer—lasts from August to April. On Thursday afternoon every week during this time, my gambling partner Mr. Harvell, who is also our gardener, handyman and chauffeur, leaves the garden or car or whatever he has been working on. He retires to the privacy of his living room, brings out the pools coupon and a pencil and settles down to the really important work of the week. Down the left-band side of the coupon—which has arrived in the mail before the previous weekend—is a column of names listing football matches that are to be played off on the coming Saturday. Each column is arranged with the home team's name on the left and the "away," or visiting, team's on the right. The rest of the page is ruled off by horizontal and vertical lines, so that across the sheet from each pair of names runs a row of little boxes. There are usually 54 matches in the list, but there can be more, up to 60. Mr. Harvell is trying to prophesy the results of some of these matches, especially which ones are likely to end in a tie or, as the British prefer to put it, in a draw. He indicates his prognostication in each case with neatly drawn figures in the appropriate box, working his way down the page, but not filling in every single space, since the more up-and-down lines he fills in, the more it costs. He must also make up his mind which pool he intends to bet on. Shall it be the Penny Points Pool, forecasting 14 matches—a shilling for 12 attempts, three bob for 36? Or the Lit-Plan, covering 16 selections, for 5 shillings? (If he's got a Vernons coupon rather than one from Little-woods, the name for that plan is V-Plan. But the principle, and the cost, are the same.) What about a perm, short for permutations and combinations? All of this must be thought out. When he is satisfied he puts the coupon into the addressed envelope that came with it, automatically reading and mentally replying to the boldly printed words over which he will ultimately seal the flap:




Yes, Mr. Harvell has done all this, but he doesn't yet seal the envelope. He must first go to the post office in the village and buy a postal order—for three and nine, or five, or whatever he feels that he and I should allow for this week's flutter. This he puts in with the coupon, seals it all up, stamps the envelope, mails it and comes home, dreaming just a little of how nice it is going to be if he's really managed to hit it on the nose this time.

Mr. Harvell is not greedy. He doesn't long for a big win of �300,000. He doesn't even wish he could get �75,000. He and Mrs. Harvell would be happy enough with a share of �6,000. She explained it to me:

"We'd buy a house," she said, "and rent it out until we feel like retiring, then we'd be able to move in ourselves. That would be just about it. What do you think you'd be doing with your half?"

"Six thousand," I said thoughtfully. "I'd need notice on that." For, as I said before, Mr. Harvell and I are partners in this weekly investment. I'm afraid it's a lopsided partnership, because he does all the thinking and figuring. I only pay half the expenses. Still, I don't think he feels aggrieved, because he knows from experience how bad I am at making out the coupon. At the beginning he tried to give me a fair chance of taking my turn every other week, and I made a mess of it. Nowadays he does it, and keeps me informed on anything out of the ordinary, such as an extra-special big bet of 90� instead of 55�, or a win. Yes, we have had our lucky days. Once we got about a dollar apiece, over and above expenses. Another time we had $4.50 each, and once, believe it or not, we took in �116—more than $150 apiece. That time, my husband, who had always sneered at our preoccupation, looked very thoughtful.

The first thing that strikes a visiting American about all this is the piquant fact that it's legal. There are laws against gambling in Britain (right now they are the subject of debate in Parliament, occasioned by a bill which would overhaul them completely), but the contention of pools champions is that the pools aren't gambling in the legal sense of the word but games of skill. Indeed, nobody who watches Mr. Harvell with his pencil could doubt that he really does lavish brain power and technique on the task. It is no mere lottery for him. No wowser could possibly claim that it's as easy as shooting craps. Yet there are still cynics who maintain that you'd probably do quite as well by shutting your eyes and jabbing blindly at the coupon. These are the people who argue that the government connives at the game for the sake of the tax collected by the treasury from the pools firms—a tidy sum of money, as we shall shortly see—and that no official would dare fly in the face of the populace anyway by abolishing the pools, since to do so would certainly bring down the government. But then some people will say anything.

It is a fact that most contestants are dead serious about their selections and take a lot of trouble over them, which does not surprise the person who first looks at the layout. It seems pretty complicated (see page 73). I have just opened our weekly Littlewoods packet, in which are two sets of coupons—one for sending in, one to keep as a copy—a sheet of pure advertising and a little red paper book of the rules for the new season, in compliance with the Pool Betting Act of 1954. The backs of the coupons are decorated with forms, on which one may try the fancier methods of betting, with Dickensian names such as The Easier Six. Small-time stuff, The Easier Six—the maximum you can bet on that is a pound. Along the top of next Saturday's pool are several beaming faces: Littlewoods winners who won fix-figure dividends, shown complete with names, partial addresses and the amount each one got. The text doesn't tell you just how these lucky, or perhaps I should say skillful, persons did their betting, but I shouldn't be surprised to hear that most of them did it by way of the treble chance.

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