'I've been through five bank accounts in ten years' - the life of a pro punter
Peter Thomas explores a world of hard graft, persistence and native cunning
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Every punter with a shred of self-awareness will know the feeling. That gnawing in the pit of the stomach as the latest well-founded wager crumbles to dust. The fear that the good days have amounted to nothing and the bad ones are here to stay. The mocking laughter of the betting gods and the solidifying belief that the next winner won't arrive until hell has frozen over.
For most of us, although it happens more often than we might like, the bad run isn't life-changing; a brief drawing in of the horns and we can resume the unequal struggle on payday. But what if there was no payday? What if winners were a sole source of income rather than an optimistic funding mechanism for life's little luxuries? What then?
For the professional punter, the despair is multiplied tenfold and has the potential to end in the poor house. When getting it right is about putting food on the table, the stakes are raised to the level of a circus high-wire and there's no safety net.
Mark Holder has been there many times and he hasn't enjoyed it one bit.
"I've had a run of 33 consecutive losers," he recalls without so much as a retrospective shudder. "It doesn't seem bad looking back, but at the time it was hideous and I was robotic, I just got up and worked, because there was no alternative.
"The worst, though, came after a brilliant run in 2002, when I decided to splurge and buy a big house for the family. I had two and a half children at private school and a huge mortgage, and then in 2003 I went through a terrible run that was hugely, hugely stressful and left me worrying constantly about the financial commitments, which is never helpful as a punter.
"There are times when no matter how hard you work, in the short term you can get no return, but you have to remember that if you keep going it will pay off. All you can do is work a bit harder and wait for it to change, because it always does change, but it helps if you have a tolerant and understanding wife like mine!"
This is a living like no other and, like a square peg in a round hole, the peculiar obsession has to be made to fit into the rest of life, as Holder has found in the 25 years since he gave up being part of the training business run by his father Richard and decided he could make it pay punting.
There were abortive starts – "I'd drive from Bristol to Lingfield with £20 in my pocket, have £20 on an even-money favourite and drive home again, so money management clearly wasn't my strength at the time" – but soon he was pointed in the direction of a friend of a friend who was wise to the potential of telecommunications, which was still a mysterious beast in 1992.
"He dealt in premium-rate phone lines and he said there are two types that made money: sex lines and gambling lines," says Holder. "I was 27 and sadly I knew far more about gambling than I did about sex, so that's the way I went and very soon I was a professional with a paying clientele and a sense of security from the line that helped me develop what I wanted to do, and from 2000 I was far more a punter than an adviser."
That Holder is still making it pay, 28 years down the line, is testament to his own expertise and discipline, but also to the advice he was always happy to take as a fledgling professional, not least from Billy Baugh, a punting friend of his father's who offered the first nuggets of education.
"When we had runners, Billy would ring and tell us how they were going to run and Dad would take his opinion seriously," recalls the man who still acts as betting adviser to a select band of clients.
"People – even some clever people – still think this game is about inside information, but here was a man who made a living from betting and he taught me that while most trainers know about their own horse, a punter is dealing with an equation that has ten, 12, 14 runners – which is why I genuinely don't listen to anybody when I'm assessing a race."
On the other side of the punting coin is Neil Channing, sometime tournament-winning poker professional and now the brains behind the Betting Emporium website, who is happy to enlist other opinions and exchange ideas if it clears the road to profit. Racing is his personal strength and still provides the bedrock of his operation, but he's not averse to diversification.
"I used to listen to a lot of people back in the 1990s, jockeys' agents and the like," he explains, "but it was 100 phone calls a day to pick up snippets and these days when I'm betting on racing I'd much rather just look at the form book.
"I'll bet on golf majors, though, and although I don't know a thing about golf, there are any number of people whose opinions you can read on the internet, and the markets are so competitive. In the same way, I couldn't name two players from any team in the Premier League but I follow a couple of guys on the football and turn over quite a lot, and they may follow me on horses and we'll help each other a lot with shared information.
"I had a bet on the tennis today. I hadn't heard of either player, but it was exciting and I won a bit of money, and I didn't have any sort of responsibility, which was a nice feeling."
Where the two men share a common ethic is in the field of hard graft. Channing has been up at 2.30am all through the Ebor meeting to keep his Emporium information current and well informed, while Holder, for all that he enjoys competing in motor racing, going to the gym and playing golf, and has even finished fifth in a charity race at Cheltenham – "I made a schoolboy error and misjudged the pace, which is a bit embarrassing for somebody who claims to be a student of the clock" – confesses that he has a "work obsession".
"I want everything to be right because I don't want to lose through having made a stupid mistake," he explains. "I like things to be correct, I like people to be on time, because in racing everything happens at a set time, and if I want a bet on the one o'clock, I can't have it at three minutes past.
"That kind of attention to detail is crucial. If you have a good run, you think you've got the game by the balls and you might take your foot off the pedal slightly. That invariably leads to the quality of results falling, but that's the key to my longevity – I believe that if I don't work hard I won't be rewarded. The thought of not having to sit at my desk for ten hours a day worries me. I have the feeling that if I'm not working I must be missing something."
That attention to detail naturally extends to his record-keeping, which is necessarily rather more meticulous than that of the average backer.
"I keep track to the penny," he confirms. "It's my nature. There are a lot of people in racing who are deluded about their success or otherwise, and I never wanted to be like that. I've always wanted to keep afloat, so I always know what I'm winning or losing."
Channing has experimented with many ways of going about his business. This is a game that can be played many ways, according to the nature of the player and the demands of the situation, and he's tried a lot of them.
"I had a time where I had a bunch of people in betting shops and I was texting them, 'all go now', but that was pretty hard work, transferring money around all the time," he reflects on his early attempts to 'get on'.
"For a couple of years I'd tramp round myself, pick a couple of races a day and try to go in 24 shops in three hours betting the same horses, doing eight or ten miles walking and losing quite a bit of weight, but it's harder now.
"When I moved house I had a good run in the local shops where I wasn't really known. Then one shop told me I'd turned over £100,000 and won £25,000 – which makes you wonder why they didn't notice it before – and that all fizzled out.
"Then I discovered this guy via the tipping site who said he had a bunch of accounts and seemed to be able to open new ones when they got closed. As a pro punter you spend so much time on admin, chasing money, moving money around from person to person, doing more of that than looking at the sport, so now I text this guy and he does a lot of it for me."
For all that being able to stake the desired amount is a priority, however, Channing learned that just sticking around is even more important.
"I made a policy decision four or five years ago to give myself longevity rather than smash it out of the ground," he says. "If you're taking the 8-1 the night before about a 3-1 shot, you're going to get one bet on, maybe a couple of hundred quid, then get shut down, and you'll run out of people quite quickly.
"You can be the best judge in the world but you're never going to last, so now I'd have five times more turnover on a Saturday than on a normal Wednesday and I'll do it all between 11am and 1pm, when the market's supposed to be at its strongest, betting on TV races, generally big handicaps, double-figure prices, maybe two or three in a race, and you hope the bookie will say 'he doesn't know much, he took 6-1 about something that was 8-1 earlier, he just got lucky'. And I'd quite like them to feel like that at the end of the day because they'll probably give me a bit of a run."
"It's about staying in the game," agrees Holder, strictly a jumps-only man these days, manually recording sectional times in hurdle races, betting mostly each-way at double-figure prices, playing 50 per cent on Betfair – "where you can manage the volatility" – and 50 per cent with the bookies.
"I'd say over 28 years I've under-staked. Had I staked twice as much I'd have been twice as well off, but mentally I'd have gone close to the edge on a couple of occasions. Money management is vital. You want to have enough on to make a difference but not so much that it makes a difference to what you do the following day, feeling you have to stake back on horses that are inevitably the ones who win. You overstake, you lose your confidence and you're out of the game.
"You have to accept if you're backing 20-1 shots that there are going to be far more losing days than winning ones. But a bad day isn't a losing day – a bad day is when my judgement is wrong, no matter whether I've won or lost. In the long term, if your judgement is wrong you're going to go skint."
For both men, the reality is that pro punting is changing constantly and quickly. For Channing, however, the problems are not only growing but coming from different directions as the wider world adjusts its attitude to gambling.
"There's a lot of moaning about bookmakers closing your account," he explains, "but all the pro punters I talk to are moaning about banks closing their accounts. I've been through five in the last ten years. They start asking where your money's coming from, telling you that you keep coming up on trigger points because of the size of transfers, asking who's this bloke you're giving money to and why? And when you explain to them that it's gambling, they have no idea – they're normal people from a normal way of life and they have no concept of this different world because it doesn't tick any of the boxes on their system."
Even the impersonal approach offered by in-shop betting terminals offers little respite for the heavy backer.
"I was betting a lot on the general election," recalls Channing, "and I put £800 in tenners into the terminal, asked for £600 to win £200, then £200 to win £100 on something else, and the machine switched itself off.
"Somebody from head office had apparently called to tell them to turn the machine off, give the fella his money back and tell him to f**k off. I was thinking I was anonymous, but they're always keeping an eye on you these days.
"For example, it used to be quite a common thing four or five years ago for a pro punter to pay a student to open up an account for them to use, but these days it's proper work for them, sending in bank statements and proof of identity. Then the firms ring them up and ask if they've just had a bet on the tennis? And if they don't know the answer, the bookie will just refuse to pay.
"It changes and you have to adapt, but I can foresee a time when it becomes impossible to live in the alternative economy at all and there will be no more pro punters."
These may be the extremes a professional will go to in order to stay in business, but perhaps the hardest part is remaining as 'normal' as possible in the thick of a job that's anything but.
"When my family came home in the evening, I always wanted to be exactly the same," says Holder, "even though when you're having a crap run you have to suppress your emotions and put a smile on your face. Perhaps that's why I'm still married.
"The thing is, if you have a good run and buy a nice car you can sell it when you have a bad run, but you can't take your kids out of a school because Daddy's had a bad run on the horses. So it was tough, and there are no short cuts – if there were any I'd have stumbled across them by now.
"I know I'll still have hideous losing runs going forward and I'll question myself and question the game, even after all these years, but the competitive side of me makes me still want to find an edge that nobody else has seen."
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