History of the Bookmakers

Gambling has now become a huge industry around the world which in 2018 was valued at over $48Billion. The growth in recent years, especially UK based has been huge but how did we get here? Gambling actually can be dated back thousands of years even before the times of written history, way before gambling houses started to appear commonly in the first millennium BC in China. So in this article we are going to look through the history and gambling and bookmakers to see how we evolved an industry for throwing dice or betting on fighting animal to the huge entertainment industry many betting fans are familiar with now.

What is a bookmaker

To understand the history of bookmakers it might be worth quickly running over what they actually do. A bookmaker, also known as a bookie or turf accountant, is basically someone who takes bets. It isn’t quite that simple though. A bookie can be a person or an organisation that accepts bets on an event, giving odds on each available selection based on their likely chances to win. They then pay out to the bettor on those odds if their bet wins. We’ll quickly run through an example of a football match to explain. Team A are playing at home to Team B, and Team A are in top form winning their last 5 games whilst Team B are in poor form not winning any games in their last 5. All the form points to Team A to win so the bookies will have their odds short, let’s say 4/7 to win, whilst Team B will be bigger, such as 3/1 with the draw maybe 2/1. You must then, as the bettor, decide whether you will bet on the more likely home win with short odds or gamble on the chance of winning bigger returns by betting on the bigger odds, often referred to as ‘the outsider’.

History – How the bookmakers evolved.

The first bookmakers in the UK can be dated back to the 1790s, and it is widely accepted the first bookie was Harry Ogden who took bets at Newmarket Racecourse in 1795.

The Gaming Act of 1845 was at the time an attempt to discourage gambling and brought some interesting changes such as making cheating illegal and bets no longer deemed enforceable as a legal contract, you could no longer chase up unpaid gambling debts in the courts. Gambling Houses became targets of the police, which actually had the opposite effect as the desired one, it simply pushed betting and gambling further underground.

As horse racing continued to be hugely popular, with track side bookies being allowed to ply their trade different bookmakers started to pop up offering odds. This also meant that illegal ‘backstreet’ bookies also were appearing and taking bets, which at the time was completely against the law. This continued for many years with legal bookmakers at horse racing and greyhound racing courses and illegal bookies operating in the shadows employing ‘runners’ to take bets on street corners for the bookmakers and then take the winnings back to any winning punters.

In an attempt to take the illegal backstreet bookies out of the game came the Betting and Gaming Act 1960. This was probably the single biggest change to betting and started the revolution to what we now recognise as the modern world of betting. This started with the introduction of betting shops. The aim was simple, to take betting off the streets.

This led to many bookmakers expanding from not just having track side betting pitches but opening shops as well. Some of the oldest bookies such as Ladbrokes and William Hill now had the chance to expand, and it started their rise to be some of the world’s biggest betting and gambling names.

These betting shops had many rules they had to follow to be allowed to operate and many of these didn’t change for decades. It is in-fact still illegal to be able to see inside a betting shop from the outside although bookmakers are now allowed to show offers and odds on the outside of the building, this was not the case before 2005.

If you walk into many bookies betting shops these days you will usually be treated to large TV’s covering the walls displaying the latest odds and showing many different events live. Until 1986 they were not allowed to live broadcast any event, which lead to many other problems including some bookmakers cheating. Satellite Information Services (SIS) changed all this in 1986 when they were formed and started to screen live race to the bookmakers betting shops.

It may come as a surprise now as we are all so used to seeing bookies and other gaming companies advertising on TV but this was also not allowed. Advertising on TV and Radio for bookmakers and gambling companies was not allowed until the Gambling Act 2005 was passed.

At the same time technology was moving fast and the internet was already opening a whole new world of opportunities with many betting companies starting to offer online gaming services. So not only could bookmakers now advertise on TV they could also take bets online from punters who didn’t even have to leave their homes.

The rise of the online bookies has been amazing. Although many bookmakers still operate betting shops there are now some bookmakers that have only ever operated an online betting service. Advancements in internet betting also lead to many bookmakers moving their operations ‘offshore’, with Gibraltar being a popular destination, so they would be paying less tax in the UK. This later resulted in the UK Government introducing the Point of Consumption Tax (PoC) so companies were taxed on where the bet was placed rather than where the bet was actually processed.

The last 20 years have certainly been exciting times for the whole industry, whether you are a sports betting fan, bookmaker or online gaming site. There have been many different companies come and go, whether they have been bought out, merged or simply collapsed. It has lead to a lot more competition that has been great for the punter. Not many years ago, for example, if you wanted to enjoy casino games you would need to visit a bricks and mortar casino, probably have to pay to enter and get no or little bonuses (kickbacks) for playing. Nowadays, you can play online, and before you decide where to play you have a huge choice of online casino offers to claim before you have even played.

The same goes for the bookies, now they are all, or most, now competing online as well as the High Street the balance of power has tipped further towards the punter. Where can the bookmakers go from here is not clear, as there is only so much they can offer. Now with features such as live in-play betting, cash-out bets and build your own bet it is hard to see what more the bookies can offer. After all they were quick to start offering casino, games, bingo and poker. It is clear though, the bookmakers will never stand still and with the industry still growing there certainly are many more exciting times ahead.