Google Analytics

Friday, 15 August 2014

Doing the Pools


A Life of No Publicity

Tasker Dunham takes another look at his childhood diary
January 4, 1965. Monday. Sent Football Pools
January 9, 1965. Saturday. No win on pools.
January 30, 1965. Saturday. No pools win.
February 27, 1965. Saturday. No pools win but got six draws.
March 13 1965. Saturday. Got 8 draws. 21½ and 22 points. But there were 17 draws overall so might not get anything.
March 18, 1965. Thursday. Pools winnings came but only 16 shillings as only 4 dividends were paid. Dad says I can have it all if I pay this week.

I began to do the football pools at the age of twelve. Yes, I know that isn’t allowed, that in 1965 you had to be at least twenty-one, and that even though the minimum age was later eighteen and is now sixteen, parents who allow their twelve-year-old to gamble on the pools risk being put on some kind of social services register, but I did indeed start at twelve. I submitted entries in my dad’s name, on his behalf, with his full blessing. He paid for the weekly, half-crown postal order, and I had the time and the inclination to work out the predictions, complete the coupon, and put it expectantly into the post box. 

The football pools, betting on the outcomes of football matches, was a massive business in the 1960s. Around ten million people dreamed of becoming rich overnight, gambling millions of pounds each week by sending in their coupons to the three main pools companies, Littlewoods which was the biggest, Vernons, or Zetters.

Our own entry used a special grid called ‘Lit Plan 30’, which amounted to an entry of thirty ‘lines’ at one old penny per line. Explaining what this means can get seriously complicated in lots of ways - not least old pennies, ‘Lit Plans’ and ‘lines’ - but essentially each ‘line’ contained a selection of eight football matches which you hoped would all end as drawn games. Each correctly predicted draw was worth three points, so a line of eight could give you a maximum possible twenty-four points, which would win a ‘first dividend’.

With ‘Lit Plan 30’, you picked twelve matches, and your thirty lines of eight were generated using different combinations of those twelve matches alone. So when in March, 1965, we correctly predicted eight draws as noted in the diary, it was eight out of twelve rather than eight out of eight, and none of the lines defined by the ‘Lit Plan’ corresponded exactly to the eight draws. The closest were worth only 22 and 21½ points, winning us a fourth dividend and a fifth dividend. I said it could get complicated. Believe me, that’s not the half of it. 

Some weeks, a first dividend could be worth a colossal fortune. It depended on how many games on the entire coupon had resulted in draws that week. Sometimes there might be fifteen or more, in which case lots of people would have managed to pick eight, and, shared out between them, the first dividend could be as little as just a few pounds. Other weeks there might be only eight draws overall, with only one person in the entire country predicting them correctly. That was when you won the whole jackpot. It could be hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pounds. 

It is incredible now to remember just how much of a national obsession the football pools once were. Before the National Lottery it was the only way you might win astronomical sums for small stakes. Systems which claimed to maximise your chances of winning were advertised in newspapers and on the radio. Ask almost anyone born before 1950 to tell you about “Keynsham”, and just about every one of them, correctly pronouncing it “cane-sham” not “keen-sham”, will spell it out meticulously, pausing between letters in exactly the same way:  “Department One, Keynsham, spelt ‘K’, ‘E’, ‘Y’, ‘N’, ‘S’, ‘H’, ‘A’, ‘M’,  Keynsham, Bristol”. Such was the incantation of one Horace Batchelor every evening on 208 Radio Luxembourg when he advertised his ‘famous Infra Draw Method’ to help you win the jackpot. He persuaded listeners to send their stakes to him, and then filled in their coupons for them, only asking for further payment if and when they were successful. 

It seems, though, pools companies aside, the biggest winner was Horace himself. In comparison to our own paltry thirty-line entry, the ‘famous Infra Draw Method’ effectively gave him a personal share in an enormous combined entry of tens of thousands of ‘lines’ each week, . By submitting such a large number of entries, he increased the chance that one of them would win a large amount, exactly like buying ten thousand different national lottery tickets, and when one of them won, he got his percentage. When he died in 1977, he left a hundred and fifty thousand pounds, around five million in terms of average earnings today, the equivalent of several top dividends. 

Big winners found themselves thrust into the public consciousness to serve the pools companies’ marketing machine, especially if they were young and photogenic. Perhaps the most famous was blonde, twenty five year-old, but otherwise ordinary Castleford housewife Viv Nicholson, who won one hundred and fifty thousand pounds in 1961. Actually it was her husband, Keith, who had won, but the press preferred to make out it was her. She announced in a firestorm of publicity that she was going to “spend, spend, spend”, as indeed she did, fascinating the press for years through her exuberant extravagance, the tragedy of Keith’s death in his crashed Jaguar, her subsequent marriages, and her inevitable bankruptcy. 

Top prizes gradually grew in size and began regularly to exceed the million pound mark in the 1980s. I still have a Littlewoods booklet from around 1988 showing photographs of euphoric winners receiving large cheques from smiling celebrities. “Lorry driver Jim Anderson picked up a world record load, a £1,339,358 cheque from Littlewoods.” The booklet appeals to our greed and taste for the high-life. “A sleek ‘limo’ swept Jim and his family off to London … After a night in a top London hotel, it was on to the Ritz for the celebrity presentation of that massive cheque. For Jim, Elaine Paige’s voice has never sounded sweeter.” The record win of all time on the traditional pools, just under three million pounds, occurred in 1994, coincidentally in the first week of the National Lottery. 

We never did make it to that top London hotel and swanky celebrity presentation, but even if we had won a million, there was an unobtrusive little box in a corner of the coupon which said “tick for no publicity”, and we always ticked it. Of course, the pools companies always tried their hardest to persuade winners who had ticked the box to change their minds, but if we had won, I know for certain Dad would have wanted to keep it all as quiet as possible. 

In due course, I became old enough to send in the coupon in my own name. The age of legal majority in England and Wales changed to eighteen from twenty-one on the 1st January, 1970, which was after I became eighteen, but before I reached twenty one. I became an adult, legally speaking, allowed to submit pools coupons in my own name and to do other almost as important things such as vote, at the age of twenty. 

I continued the pools for over forty years. Over all that time I must have won about a dozen times, usually just a couple of pounds for a fifth dividend, once just over two pounds for a first dividend in a week when there were lots of draws, and one week the massive sum of seventy five pounds. Why did I stop? In part, it was because the experience gradually changed, but the main reason was the National Lottery. 

The weekly trip to buy a Postal Order was superseded by cheques. The weekly entry was overtaken by a ‘standing-forecast’, covering twenty weeks at a time. Rather than trying to forecast actual results, you gambled on a fixed selection of the sequence numbers by which matches were listed. Originally the Pools companies had successfully avoided gambling legislation by claiming they ran competitions of skill rather than chance. You were not a gambler but an “investor”. You were paid dividends, not winnings. There was no skill involved in simply picking sets of numbers. The process became more and more detached from the football on which it was based; the names of the teams ceased to appear on the coupons. It all became simpler and simpler. Reduced emphasis on permutations and ‘Lit-plans’, removed even the mathematical interest. I stopped bothering to check whether I had won each week and waited for the Pools company to tell me. Basically, it just wasn’t fun any more. But still I fought on in the sad belief that one day they would attempt to persuade me to allow some synthetically cheerful celebrity to present me with a large cheque at a posh London hotel.  

One day, in 2008, Littlewoods Pools telephoned me out of the blue. Perhaps you can guess the anticipation that went through my mind, just for the briefest of moments. Sadly, they had phoned only to suggest I start paying my stake by direct debit, removing the trouble of posting in the entries at all, despite being now required only twice a year. That prompted me to re-examine the whole process. It was surprising to find the regular jackpots were no longer in the hundreds of thousands, and you would actually be lucky to win the price of a new car. Big wins were now rare. I had not noticed that after the National Lottery started in 1994, the number of Pools players had dropped from over ten million per week, to around seven hundred and fifty thousand, with a consequent fall in the prize monies. 

The Pools then took another hit from the growth in online gambling, where you could bet not only on the outcome of a football match, but the final score, the half-time score, the first player to score, which team would be next to score, and so on, with odds changing in real-time as the match progressed. How much more fun is that? 

Please don’t get me wrong, it would be very nice to win the price of a new car, if you offered to buy me one I would graciously accept, but that is not why I entered the football pools for all those years. I was in to win a life-changing sum of money. After half a lifetime, I deserted the football pools for good, and increased my lottery entry from once to twice per week. More recently, when money-grasping Camelot, the National Lottery operator, put the entry stake up to two pounds, like hundreds of thousands of others, I cut back to just once a week. I wonder how my old pools standing-forecast numbers are doing.

There was just one other thing I didn’t realise. The box for no publicity didn't just apply to the pools coupon. Its jurisdiction extended to the rest of my life as well. 


No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome comments and usually respond the same day.