The perils of William Hill

I worked as a cashier and then manager for William Hill Bookmakers for two years in the early 2000s. Having had a fascination with numbers since childhood and a general liking of working with the public (mostly in small doses), it was a job I’d always wanted to try, and when it seemed clear that my rock star dream wasn’t going to come off and I could no longer sit around my London flat waiting for something to happen, I applied, was accepted for a training course and started work there in a branch in Camden, North London, in the Spring of 2003.

The job was not a great one. The pay was low, the employees justifiably cynical about the company, and on busy days the stress level was high, with 800 bets not uncommon on a Saturday, especially if there was a big race. Most of the punters were honest but in the backroom images of ‘people to watch’ taken from CCTV cameras were pinned to the wall. These were known cheats who would employ various tricks to try to con the company out of money. I won’t go in to the myriad ways that this could be done, since many were very intricate and I simply can’t remember a lot of them, but having to watch out for that plus occasionally take abuse from disappointed losing punters made it quite an unpleasant experience at times though not without laughs and lighter moments. In addition, for someone like me with a Psychology background and a great interest in human behaviour, the job was in some ways an anthropological gift.

The gambling industry is a brutal one if an addiction starts to form. To compare it with alcohol, a well-balanced person such as my late grandfather can usually enjoy a flutter (small bet) or a pleasant pint without it becoming an issue in their life, but for those who are perhaps troubled or already have issues in their life (and indeed some who don’t), the need to gamble or drink can become a terrible burden on their life. I remember one young man who had maxed out 3 credit cards, amounting to thousands of pounds, losing on the Roulette machine in the shop. Naturally, his only possible way to win himself out of that hole was to get a big payout, so he would start taking crazy bets like 300 pounds on one number on the wheel (a 1-in-36 chance). I dread to think what happened to him.

Another thing I found somewhat tragic was virtual racing. These were computer-generated horse races made to look real with commentary and even pre-race ‘form’, which is where your friendly expert will make predictions on the race and discuss the last few races for each pretend horse. One extremely clever gimmick of these races was that a totally unlikely winner would often suddenly emerge from the pack with a sprint finish, the commentary getting wildly excited as the underdog triumphed against the odds. I say clever because the chancers, particularly those who were down on their daily bets (i.e. losing), would spy a chance for an unlikely victory and large payout. However, this phenomenon actually lessens the chances of winning overall over the stretch of a few races because of how unlikely and random it is. Most people who break even on horse or greyhound races generally do that by studying the form and backing the favourites. The bookies love unlikely wins because their overall payout on those is small compared to all the money they make from the many losing bets on the favourites.

Since I was Assistant Manager, I would often be called upon to manage, at short notice, shops where a manager had called in sick. Often I would arrive with punters already outside grumbling about wanting to get their bets on for the early races. I would open the front door but have to keep them out while I got the shop ready. Picture ‘Night of the Living Dead’ as they moved like a mindless horde towards the place of satisfying their addictions. One of the shops I would deputise at was in a poor area of Camden. The punters there were decent people but many were out of work and using their ‘dole money’ (unemployment benefits) to gamble and drink rather than buy food. Consequently, they looked undernourished and unwell and could be very short-tempered. Trips between betting shops and pubs are a fairly common occurrence in this culture, and the staff of the betting shops in deprived areas often get the full brunt of the combination of intoxication, lack of food and a loss of money.

Lest this seem like a totally negative view of working in this establishment, I should make it clear that these were mostly the ‘highlights’. The average day in my regular shop involved small bets, pleasant regulars and some good banter between staff and customers, and even some of the regular sticking-points could be quite amusing. For longer horse races involving ‘jumps’, punters were allowed to place a bet after the race had started and the first hurdle had been negotiated (or not, as the case may be) by the horses. Cue a horde of punters rushing towards the staff area to place their bets. In those days, bets were written on slips of paper and we would enter the information into the system, keep the original and give the customer back the attached copy. Often the punters would arrive at the counter with the slip all creased and beaten-up and the bet or bets, often complicated ones, scrawled in a hurry and almost illegible. We would then have to hurriedly ‘iron’ the paper slip so that it would go in the machine and quickly enter the data into the system. Of course those in the queue would be watching the race and slyly changing their bets while waiting. On a  good day, this amused me. On a bad day, it was highly irritating.

Since I’d ceased to care much about the company after realising how they treated their staff, as will be detailed in the next paragraph, I didn’t come down hard on the punters on these kinds of minor infringements since the amount of money involved was minimal. Another breach of the rules regarded smoking. In those days smoking was still allowed in indoor public spaces, and you can probably guess that the air in betting shops was thick with cigarette smoke on busy days, yet another unpleasant and uncomfortable aspect of the job. A rather amusing memory is that when customers came up to place their bets, there was typically a ‘no smoking’ sign right in front of them (not that it mattered since the smoke from the shop would waft into this area anyway). Perhaps not surprisingly, since many were preoccupied with their bets and/or a bit tipsy, they wouldn’t notice and so would be standing there with a ciggie dangling from their lips, the smoke stinging their eyes as they finished scribbling their bets on the slip. I could only laugh and imagine I was in a comedy sketch, or otherwise consider writing one of my own since there was generally plenty of material.

In the summer, we would have the joys of late opening and be obliged to work until around 9.30pm. Summers in England are notoriously unpredictable but I have distinct memories of sweltering temperatures and stressed staff members and customers, made worse by the fact that the company had refused to install air conditioning. To add insult to injury, we would occasionally get leaflets detailing what a great success the company had had, with their ‘record profits’ in the millions and token thanks given to the tireless staff members who ‘made it all possible’. I actually read the memoir of one of the founders of the company (not Mr Hill himself, alas), who had the gall to say that he had zero interest in staff members below Area Manager. Nice!

The final part of this short tale involves an incident that highlights once again the bad practices of the company and also the hypnotic pull and ‘buzz’ of the bet and the chance to win money. Since news from our local area and beyond regarding the shops would go through a pretty reliable and lively grapevine, we would often hear of robberies in various branches. The most common of these would be raids on the roulette machines. During our training period, we learned that robberies were normally carried out with toy guns (about 80% of the time) and that they would almost always last less than a minute, sometimes as little as 30 seconds with skilled criminals. The robbers typically didn’t want to use violence and preferred it all to be over with very quickly and more or less wordlessly, and since the company was insured to the hilt, we were told never to try and apprehend them or impede them in any way (I won’t share the grisly story we heard of a manager who did try).

The staff area was protected by a glass window which unfortunately was not bulletproof, the company’s comical rationale being that robbers would assume that the glass was bulletproof (i.e that a prosperous company like William Hill wouldn’t be so tight as to not pay for said glass) and so wouldn’t bother trying to shoot at it. Occasionally, we would hear of armed robberies that would target the shop’s safe and naturally hoped that we wouldn’t be the unlucky ones. One day, we were…

I was managing a shop in a rough area and my cashier was a young man of 17, a sensitive soul who most agreed didn’t really belong in this environment, but like me at his age was probably attracted by the ‘figures nerd’ aspect of the job. It had been a normal Saturday in that shop, with a few minor arguments over lost and late bets. Suddenly, around mid-afternoon and with a fairly important horse race about to start in a few minutes, 3 men burst into the shop with balaclavas shouting for everyone to put their hands up and keep still. The scene looked like it could have come straight out of a film or TV series, but this was real enough and unfortunately my young cashier was in the middle of emptying the machines, as we did periodically through the day, and so had the horrible experience of a gun being pointed at his head (at that point, you don’t quite consider whether the gun is toy or real). To his great credit, he calmly stepped away as instructed, and after emptying that machine and the others, the robbers approached the counter. As you can imagine, there was a dramatic silence at this point. I decided to very calmly say ‘can I say something? The company is fully insured and nobody’s going to hassle you’, and that seemed to cool everything down a little.

I was instructed to empty the safe while the whole shop fell silent except for the now rather surreal sound of the commentator enthusiastically calling one of the virtual races (you couldn’t make it up!). With this done, they took the money and with a mocking ‘thank you’, exited the shop. Amazingly this had all taken barely more than a minute. The protocol at this time was for the manager to immediately lock the shop and call the police, and for everyone to stay inside until the law had arrived and taken witness statements. Everyone was stunned to silence for a while, and I tried to calm and comfort my understandably shaken young cashier. As I went back behind the counter to close the safe and call the police and then the District Manager, the customers started to discuss what had just happened. I looked up for a second and noticed one of the regulars shuffling towards the counter, looking a little more sheepish than usual. He looked me in the eye and said, admittedly a tad apologetically, ‘err, can I still get my bet on?’….