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With live sports effectively cancelled, gamblers in London are placing bets on everything from animated horse racing to table tennis
31st March, 17:59On March 11, soon after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, the NBA indefinitely suspended operations. The Premier League did the same on the 13th, a day after Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta announced he'd contracted the virus. On the 24th, the International Olympic Committee announced it would postpone Tokyo's Summer Games.
These cancellations have had a natural knock-on effect: Sports betting markets have nearly vanished too. But hardcore gamblers are finding a way.
Gambling isn't as visible in America as it is in London, where I live. While the US Supreme Court overturned a decades-old federal ban on sports betting in the spring of 2018, certain states have made only cautious inroads into the still controversial practice.
Meanwhile, in England, gambling has been a healthy and legal business since the 1960s. There's a bookmaker shop on nearly every corner. The Gambling Commission, the UK's industry regulator, estimates that bettors spend about 14 billion pounds (roughly $17.5 billion) in wagers a year. Thanks to companies like Paddy Power, William Hill, and Ladbrokes, who offer both betting apps and brick-and-mortar betting parlors, gambling on sports is famously easy.
Until there's nothing to bet on.
Last week I reached out to a buddy -- he didn't want to be identified for this story, but just know he's the most committed gambling man I know -- to see how he'd been pushing through.
He'd been amused by the scraps advertised on betting sites. "I was still betting on the snooker, but even that's cancelled now," he texted. "Right now top of Paddy Power is Haitian premier league."
As we texted, he checked in on a game in Haiti, Violette AC versus Arcahaie FC.
"Cheeky bit of Haitian league in-play?" he messaged. Translation: Should he make a bet on this game that has already started and that he knows nothing about?
For now, he's largely decided to suspend operations. "I did have some money in my accounts so I started exploring the other options. Blackjack, Bingo, etc. Won a lot. Lost it all. Reminded why I don't do that."
Rupert Adams is a spokesman for William Hill, one of the UK's major bookmakers (which has a growing presence in the US as well). He caught me up on the company's situation as of March 20, the day Prime Minister Boris Johnson began issuing a string of severe lockdown orders.
"Ireland is doing one horse race a day behind closed doors, which is great," Adams said. "We've got some South African races, and we've got Hong Kong. There's some pretty weak football available, which we are putting up." Along with the Haitian league, William Hill has prominently featured the Belarusian Premier League.
As we talked, Adams checked in on an active match in another lesser-known league, on which William Hill was offering 146 separate bets. He stumbled over the team names, then gave up: "I don't even know where that is in the world."
William Hill has tried to pivot to "other areas which are normally insignificant," Adams said. Betting on esports has gone up 250% over its usual rate. Table tennis (specifically, the Moscow Liga Pro) and "virtual racing" (effectively a lottery in which your odds are represented by the running of animated horses) are doing all right, too, Adams said.
"Sumo wrestling was in the top five the other day, much to our surprise," he said. Because people are betting on things they know nothing about, "margins-wise, we're making significantly more."
Adams said that even before the sports had stopped, William Hill had seen a lot of action on primary elections in the US. He's confident the general election will bring more of the same.
In 2016 "we took about 2 million quid in who would win," Adams said. "We actually lost quite a lot of money! We put Trump in with quite a big prize. And he started at 100-to-1. Quite a few people got in early. That market, I'm sure, will be very, very busy.
"Having said that, will the election even happen?"
But even if everything stays cancelled or postponed, William Hill will still let you invent your own bets.
Through a hashtag called #YourOdds, bettors can tweet any wager they can imagine at William Hill.
"We will try our best to price that up for you. It can be, 'my 2-year-old son will play for England.' There's a few obscure ones too: 'Aliens to exist.' We try to accommodate as best we can."
Up to a point, of course: "We don't place bets on assassinations, we don't bet on wars, and we definitely don't bet on pandemics."
Last Friday I walked out of my apartment to the corner and popped into the nearest William Hill shop, a windowless, carpeted haven of low-key, quasi-illicit entertainment. A big screen in the back showed footage of a chipper announcer plugging soccer in Myanmar and Palestine.
That same day Boris Johnson asked pubs, restaurants, and shops to voluntarily close. By March 23, with the outbreak worsening, he ordered all nonessential businesses to shutter or risk fines, and barred all gatherings of more than two people. Four days later, Johnson announced he had tested positive for the virus.
They didn't know it then, but the few bettors hanging on here -- an older man with thick white hair, a young kid in track pants -- were placing what would be some of the last in-person bets in the UK. At least for now.
Dan, a 41-year-old deliverer for a supermarket, was still in his work clothes as he bounced around the shop. "Anything on?" I asked. "Cartoon racing!" he huffed.
He told me he'd been betting since he was 15 and comes in seven days a week after work. His family used to own racing greyhounds in Walthamstow, in northeast London.
He shouted at a clerk to tell me how much he bet last year: "What's my running totals?" The clerk dutifully pulled up Dan's profile and reported out a number that seemed, frankly, impossible. He said rugby is his go-to.
Dan said he used to run into the same core group of 15 or so guys here. "Now, 'cause of the virus, the older kind of people, they're not coming anymore."
Scanning the room, I suddenly noticed Dan's tiny Jack Russell, sitting obediently a few feet away. From the back, the kid in track pants shouted, "She's wanting to go home for her roast chicken!"
When I spoke with Adams, before the prime minister's announcements, he said William Hill intended to keep its shops open. By the end of the weekend, they'd start to shut.
"A lot of people use it as their social interaction," he said. "They tend to be quite busy with early retirees who come in with their papers and go through all the forms and get a free cup of tea." But Adams obviously didn't know what the future might hold. "You know, we are just ticking over and hoping that things sort themselves out as soon as possible."
Outside the William Hill shop I caught up with the clerk, Kiana, as she smoked a cigarette.
"I know all of them," she said of Dan and the other regular bettors. "It's a place where they socialize." Now they're mostly all gone. "Business is s---," she added, smiling. "It's s---. We do have some people betting on the dogs." (At the time, the races out at the Crayford track were still going.) "But the old people, they like the horses."