GUEST POST BY
Last weekend, a friend posted a screenshot of a £5 treble that was just about to come in.
Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha to score any time against Watford, Dedryck Boyata first goalscorer for Celtic against Hamilton Accies, and Eden Hazard first goalscorer for Chelsea against the Geordies.
Apart from confirming the fact that you can bet on a combination of pretty much anything these days, this punt also made me wonder, at odds of 254/1, why anyone in their right mind would even consider it.
Aside, obviously, from the big price and the potential profit, you might place this bet, it could be argued, as a consequence of being British. Although gambling activity dates back almost to the beginning of human civilisation—from the creation and manipulation of dice in the ancient and classical worlds, to the invention and spread of modern playing cards sometime around the twelfth century—it wasn’t until 1569 that Britain staged its first national lottery. Yet the event represents a milestone in the history of one of our most abiding cultural habits. Sold to the people as a patriotic undertaking, the lottery directly and officially catered to the nation’s appetite for a spot of gambling, and it subsequently helped to fund, amongst other things, the construction of the first Westminster Bridge and the settlement of Jamestown.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and a growing mercantile society, followed, soon afterwards, by the industrial revolution, meant that an increasing number of British people had cash on the hip if they wanted to bet. And that’s precisely what they decided to do. Tales of eccentric wagers often come from the British Isles in this period. The Count de Buckeburg is famously said to have bet that he could ride his horse backwards from London to Edinburgh. Another game punter, or so the story goes, staked £500 on one of his pals being able to travel from the capital to Dover and back before a second lad managed to put a million dots on a piece of paper.
As Britain moved into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, betting on sports became increasingly prevalent. As early as 1851, according to one history of gambling in England, a million pounds was bet on the Chester Cup, a prestigious horserace, and cash prizes for predicting the results of football matches (what would eventually become the football pools) are generally believed to have preceded the establishment of a league. But it was improvements in the railways and the development of the electric telegraph system that made sports betting a nationwide phenomenon and a mass enterprise. With these innovations, you could follow races or games from different parts of the country, and so the prospects of gambling opened up as never before. Similarly, by the twenty-first century, and the speedy evolution of the internet and the launch of the betting exchanges, gambling in Britain had gone through another technological revolution. The act of gambling had never been easier. Its range of markets had never been bigger. According to the Gambling Commission, the gross gambling yield for the period October 2016 – September 2017 was £13.9bn. No more recent figures are available, presumably, because it takes so long to count such enormous piles of money.
But there’s more going on here than Brits simply being partial to an occasional flutter. Increased gambling activity is also a symptom of another kind of cultural and social adaptation. According Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, pioneers of risk society theory, people’s orientation to risk has undergone significant change since the middle decades of the twentieth century. As a consequence of the success of industrial society, the logic of wealth production has given way to the logic of risk production. That is, the rapid technological, economic and political developments of global capitalism in the previous sixty or seventy years have destabilised social structures and created a situation in which uncertainties proliferate in most aspects of our lives. In other words, we can’t keep up with what we’re doing, and we can rarely predict what’s coming next. Where once institutions such as the employer, the church, the bank, the media, the nuclear family, even the nation state, might have seemed, at least to some extent, preeminent and secure, nowadays their place and their influence are increasingly equivocal. Think about anything from 9/11 to the collapse of Northern Rock and you’ll soon find evidence of what Giddens calls ‘the careering juggernaut,’ a world where science and progress are beyond our control, and where the bottom of our existence might suddenly fall out.
This isn’t about life becoming riskier, though. It’s not about there being more buses. Or about the spread of bird flu. Or Islamic State. It’s about the fact that we don’t have the experience to confront the risks that we’re constantly in the process of creating ourselves. And it’s about a set of circumstances in which the entities that we once turned towards for answers are often just as clueless as anyone else in terms of formulating a satisfactory response. Of course, for the individual, the situation is doubly discomfiting. Not only do the experts and those in positions of economic and political power appear uncertain how to proceed, you have to start thinking about how you might proceed yourself. What do I do if I lose my job? If the family unit breaks down? If Brexit occurs? These are fundamental questions of self-identity. And they can sometimes feel like a catastrophic burden. How do I act? What’s going to happen? Who do I become? Issues have arisen around immigration in the West over the last few years not, as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage would have it, because we don’t know who the new arrivals are, but because increasing numbers of those already situated aren’t really sure who they are anymore.
Back to the gambling: I can’t say for certain whether any of these observations went through my friend’s mind last Sunday morning as he sat around the house, as he likes to do, scratching his balls and contemplating the bet. But what I can say with confidence is that something persuaded him to take the plunge. All of a sudden, for one reason or another, Dedryck Boyata seemed like a fuckin good idea.