Even Money

1

Isank deeper into depression as the Royal Ascot crowd enthusiastically cheered home another short-priced winning favorite. To be fair, it wasn’t clinical depression—I knew all about that—but it was pretty demoralizing, just the same.

I asked myself yet again what I was doing here. I had never really enjoyed coming to Ascot, especially for these five days in June. It was usually much too hot to be wearing morning dress, or else it rained, and I would get soaked. I preferred the informality of my usual haunts, the smaller steeplechase tracks of the Midlands. But my grandfather, who had started the family business, had always used the fact that we stood at the Royal Meeting as one of our major marketing tools. He claimed that it gave us some form of respectability, something he had always craved.

We were bookmakers. Pariahs of the racing world. Disliked by all, and positively hated by many, including large numbers of those whose very livelihoods depended on gambling. I had discovered over the years that my clients were never my friends. Whereas City investors might develop a close relationship with their stockbrokers, punters never wanted to be seen socializing with their bookies. Most of my regulars didn’t even know my name, nor did they want to. I suppose that was fair. I didn’t know most of their names either. We were simply participants in transactions where each of us was trying to bankrupt the other. I suppose it was a situation not really likely to engender mutual respect.

“Score on seven,” said a tall, top-hatted young man thrusting a banknote towards me. I glanced up at our board to check the odds we were offering on horse number seven.

“Twenty pounds on number seven at eleven-to-two,” I said, taking his note and adding it to the wad of others in my left hand.

A small printer in front of me whirred and disgorged a ticket that I handed to the man. He snatched it from me and moved quickly away into the throng as if he didn’t want to be seen fraternizing with the enemy. His place in front of me was taken by a short, portly gentleman whose multicolored vest was fighting a losing battle against his expansive stomach. He was one of my regular Royal Ascot customers. I knew him only as A.J., but I had no idea what the A.J. stood for.

“Hundred on Silverstone to win,” he wheezed at me, holding out some folded twenty-pound notes in his chubby fingers.

“Hundred on two at even money,” I said, taking his cash and checking the amount. Another betting slip appeared out of the small printer as if by magic, and I passed it over. “Good luck, A.J.,” I said to him, not really meaning it.

“Huh?” he said, somewhat surprised by my comment.

“Good luck,” I repeated.

“Thanks,” he wheezed, and departed.

In the good old days, when bookmaking was an art rather than a science, every transaction was written down in “the book” by an assistant. Nowadays, as in most things, it was on a computer that everything was recorded. The same computer that printed the betting slips.

It kept a running tally of all the bets that we had taken, and also constantly updated our profit or liability for every possible outcome of the race. Gone were the days when it was down to the gut reaction of the bookmaker to decide when and by how much to change the prices we displayed on our fancy electronic board. Now the computer decided. Bookmaking was no longer by instinct, it was by fractions.

When I had started working for my grandfather I had been