Thursday 2 July 2015

Meet the 9 - 5 Gamblers

An old story originally published in BBC News Magazine by Denis Winterman, 2005.

Forget those ideas about card sharps and hustlers, a new breed of white-collar gambler is using statistics and the power of the internet to turn a profit. Welcome to gambling as a career option.

Despite the stereotypes of smoke-filled betting shops and glitzy Mayfair casinos, gambling is not what it once was.

The abolition of betting tax for punters in 2001 and the growth of internet gambling have revolutionised the industry and opened the door to a new breed of gambler, who is choosing it as a career.

Matthew Benham, managing director of Smartodds, had placed just a handful of bets in his life before he became a professional gambler last year. He was a City trader for eight years before setting up his company, which bets exclusively on football.


The 36-year-old employs 13 full-time staff, mainly made up of mathematicians and statisticians. He also has 25 part-time employees around the world who collate data on their country's league. Once the analysis is done, he and just one other colleague decide what bets to place.

"After leaving my job I was looking for something new," he says. "I have always been into football and I noticed betting on games was really taking off. A lot of what I did in the City feeds into what I do now. I use the spreadsheets and financial models I did as a trader to assess odds.

"Five years ago professional gambling was hard work, but times have changed. With the internet it is much easier, from getting all the data to analyse a bet to placing it.

"I know more and more people who are taking it up full time and it is becoming a legitimate career choice. Some people are still suspicious of what I do and expect me to carry round suitcases full of cash."

Benham says it is his unemotional attitude towards gambling that makes him successful - he makes a profit, although declines to say how much.

"I never bet for fun, it is purely a job," he says. "You have to be unemotional because if you do it for the thrill you might not make sensible decisions."

There are no figures for how many people gamble professionally, but the money staked in all gambling style activities rose to £63.8bn in 2002-03, according to the government.

Dangerous passion

Politics graduate Paul Motty, 32, worked in the betting industry after school but left in 1997 to go to university because there were few prospects and full-time punting was too difficult. But after the explosion of internet betting sites he became a full-time gambler last year.

"The internet has changed the whole industry," he says. "The key to being a good gambler is research. It used to take days hunched over the papers to research a bet, now it takes minutes.

"Gambling is losing its seedy image. It is a massive global industry and doing it professionally is now a viable career. Effectively, it is just stock broking."

Taking a punt

£50 - What six out of 10 Britons spend a month on gambling

£20 - Average spend per customer at bingo on one night

£2.49 - What average household spends on Saturday's Lotto draw

He knows more and more people who are taking it up professionally and they are mainly young.

"Younger people are computer literate and use internet sites. For us gambling doesn't have the same stigma, it is a job and we set ourselves strict limits," he says.

Experts agree changes in the industry have made it more feasible to turn a punt into profit - but say it is not an easy way to make money.

"There has always been scope for smart people, with sufficient time to invest, to make it a full-time job of gambling," said Dr David Forrest, reader in economics at the Centre for Gambling at the University of Salford.

"But until recently winning didn't always convert into high returns because the taxman and bookmaker took a cut. Now it is more feasible that your time will deliver a positive financial outcome."

The university runs a degree in business and gambling studies and for the first time last year a student left to become a professional gambler after graduating.


"You have to be very dedicated - it is not an easy job," says Dr Forrest. "That's the mistake some people make."

Gordon House knows just how many people can't cope. The UK's only charity offering residential treatment programmes for gambling addicts, it has seen a huge increase in inquiries in recent years and places are massively oversubscribed.

Managing director Faith Freestone says there is a potential risk for anyone who gambles. "Professional gamblers talk about being in control but the problems start when gambling controls you," she says.

Despite his success Motty says he would not advise anyone to take it up.

"You have to take the emotion and passion out of it to be a good gambler and a lot of people just aren't able to do that."