The Game Bookies Play

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The odds of the game played on the other side of the ropes

A cricket feast is about to start and subcontinent bookies are salivating at the prospect of an extended round of punter pickings. After all, a sporting event is just a sporting event; it’s the bookies that can make it a truly heady experience. If you have money riding on a game, it enhances the watching experience. So they say. The bookies insist. It dangles you in a 3D film without even the goggles. Weather permitting, there will be at least 600 official deliveries to a match, so for punters, the prospects are orgiastic. There is also the possibility of ending up in a courtroom.

The menu card of bookies this time round is much the same as earlier. You can bet on the outcome of matches, of course, but in the feast of possible punts, that is like a side dish. Possibly there just for amateurs. Those who really dig the game are into more exotic bets. What kind? Well, which side of the pitch will the winning captain bowl from? Which of the two nominated umpires will start the proceedings? How many runs will be scored in the first ten overs? How many runs will be scored in a particular over? The possibilities are immense.

In the shuffling electrolyte balance of the betting world, India’s new middle class prosperity has opened for it orders of magnitude that didn’t exist earlier. In the 90s and even later, big bookies in urban centres wouldn’t take bets of less than Rs 10,000. But now even the bigger bookies have floored the betting threshold at Rs 5,000. The smaller ones have opened the floodgates by accepting bets of even a hundred rupees. Says a Kolkata-based bookie: “We have started engaging panwalas and chaiwalas on commission basis to grow our network of punters. At a minimum bet level of Rs 100, we found our network had exploded.”

The lowering of the betting threshold is just one aspect of the illegal trade. At the higher end, bookies have developed customised solutions. In West Bengal, for instance, if you are a regular punter, the bookies have developed a system where they will have the money collected from your home and deliver your winnings (if any) to you at the end of that very day. So they have now calibrated the trade to nurture a dependency on the ease of transaction. The high-end punter, however, has other options: like NETeller, Western Union and Entropay to transfer his money. If home collection of your bets doesn’t suit you, there are collection points—usually restaurants or sweetmeat shops—available in colonies.

The ‘inclusive’ growth of the Indian economy has done much to widen the base of punters. It is also making bookies invest in technology to remain ahead of the police. 

There are various kinds of solutions on offer—some pedestrian, some high end. The pedestrian one involves the bookie network itself—as distinct from their interaction with punters—communicating on different SIM numbers on match days. Sometimes they will switch to a different set of numbers in the second half of a game. The numbers will all be from a single network as there are various plans allowing free calls within a set of numbers. This reduces cost and since they are used for just a day or half a day, it makes monitoring a challenge. Bookie lore has it that a Jaipur-based ‘Manoj’ has even developed a sort of small PBX exchange. He charges monthly rentals of Rs 3,000 for his device and has apparently sold a few hundred of them.

At the high end, a bookie will just use Skype to be in touch with his sub-bookies taking in the bets. One such apparently tested the system during the last edition of the IPL, and is confident of using it this time during the World Cup. “If we wish, we can totally eliminate talking on Skype. We can just use signs. We already have code words for betting amounts. The only problem is how to communicate with the dabba; since he’ll be moving all the time, it’ll be difficult to sustain an internet connection. There will be breakages and we cannot afford that in between deliveries. ”

Hilarious as this introduction of sign language into the bookie trade might sound, the advent of the dabba is even more so. The dabba is a mystery man always on the move. He is the one who communicates the odds to all bookies through the mobile phone. He keeps moving in a vehicle at all times, as a stationary mobile phone is much easier to triangulate than a moving one. The dabba charges a bookie Rs 2,500-5,000 per game based on his network size, and communicates the changing odds to him on a continuous basis. Only the dabba knows the names of all the bookies. He is the main connect between the mafia that runs the betting syndicate from Mumbai and Gulf hotspots and the bookies. You cannot have two parallel betting syndicates in operation, as that would allow punters to hedge their bets on a rival syndicate, and the bookies of both systems would end up losers. Some years ago, bookies in Indore apparently created a rival system, but they suffered heavy losses.

The trade is startlingly modernised these days. Gone are the landlines of old. Even bookies can move location at a moment’s notice. Those using mobile networks were always mobile and those using VOIP have zippy pen drives. Where the trade has maintained tradition, however, is in the way high-end bookies get new punters: two existing punters (with a bookie) have to refer and play guarantor for a new punter to enter this walled world. Some bookies are also taking the precaution of moving to smaller cities.

Says a Kolkata-based bookie: “Some of us are moving [from Kolkata] to smaller cities like Siliguri, Murshidabad and Barddhaman. The police there don’t have the technology or resources to monitor us.”

Even if they are caught, the public gambling laws are very lenient. Bookies are served maximum imprisonment terms of six months, and bettors, three months. Fines are a piddly Rs 500-2,000.

In the larger analysis, it’s the audience’s obsession with the game that provides the bookies their sustenance. At the moment, the top three teams, according to bookies, are India, South Africa and England. The cancellation of Eden Gardens as a match venue has, however, affected the trade in the eastern region— local matches increase punter excitement and volumes of betting.

The bookies and smartest punters, not unlike their cousins in the stock markets, can’t afford to be in a losing business. Their business depends critically on prior knowledge: whether it is insider tips on team composition, batting order or pitch analyses, they set odds accounting for the inconsistencies of the game. Easier said than done, though. The last World Cup was defined by the death of Bob Woolmer. It set off intense worldwide speculation on the probable cause of his death. Packs of Indian reporters landed up in the West Indies and started treating the Jamaican police commissioner like he was their very own Ajay Raj Sharma. Let’s hope this time round, there is nothing so tragic.

(With inputs from Raja Chowdhury in Kolkata)