Sunday, 14 June 2009

Working out - But not as You Know it.

This new job of mine, after leaving the RAF, is proving harder than I expected. Mental arithmetic was not my speciality. This job was 80% mental arithmetic! Am I mental? Don't all yell yes at once please...

The currency in the 1950s/60s was duo-decimal. Base 12, not base 10. There were 240 pennies in £1. 12 pennies in a shilling. 20 shillings in £1. There were other coins: farthings (4 farthing = 1 penny), halfpennies, threepenny bits, sixpenny bits, shillings and half-crowns. A half-crown was two shillings and sixpence. There were 8 half-crowns in £1.

Following me? Good. That's very good! Thank goodness we went decimal in the 1970s.

I remember struggling with how to work out a simple bet; well, simple to my colleagues in the bookie's office. The punter had half-a-crown to win at 13/8, (the price of the winner he'd backed). How much money was due to him? I did my best to calculate it using a pencil and paper. I made it 6/5d. Six shillings and five pence, including his half-crown stake money.

Dicky Cox said it was wrong! I couldn't believe it. He called out to Tony, another settler: "Tony, tell him what half-crown at 13/8 is..." Tony's reply came back instantly: "Six and Seven..." meaning 6/7d. I couldn't believe that anybody could have worked out this bet so fast.

Of course Tony was correct. However, it later dawned on me that he hadn't "worked it" out at all. He and others in this business simply knew what the answers to a myriad of combinations simply from memory. I felt dejected. I couldn't imagine that I had the capacity to cope with this numbers game.

Dicky Cox was a good friend and he tutored me. He showed me how he and others broke the "price" down into sub-fractions. He said: 13/8 is simply one-and-five-eighths to one. Five eighths is easily broken down to 'one half plus a quarter of the half'. He went steadily through other fractional prices, some trickier to break down than others. There are dozens to deal with: odds-on and odds-against.

An odds-on price is anything less than even money. Even money is 1/1. 4/6 is "six to four on" ... while 6/4 is six to four against. There were horrible prices like 100/7 - which translates to "bet £7 and if the horse wins you win £100, plus your £7 stake back". Other nasties: 4/7, 8/13, 8/11, 4/9 plus their reverse "odds against" prices, such as 7/4 and so on.

"Settling" bets meant, of course, that one had to know exactly the result of every race as they occurred. If there were six race meetings that afternoon we would have at least 36 results to remember. And not just the winners name! People loved to back horses "each way" which meant a horse could come 1st, 2nd, or 3rd (and sometimes even 4th).

So, we had to remember the names and prices of around 144 horses in order to work out a punter's returns. Of course, we also had to know which horses had run and lost, or perhaps been a non-runner. If the settler inadvertently crossed out a winner it would not only upset the punter it could cause a hefty liability to the bookie.

Say a punter had a £1 win treble and the settler had mistakenly crossed out the first horse on the slip as a loser, but in fact it was a winner. That betting slip would go into the "loser" pile. However, if the other two horses on the slip also won then the punter would have a winning treble, which, depending on the prices, could come to a tidy sum.

Whilst doing all this "settling" of bets we had to answer the telephones at the same time, taking down more and more bets. It was an awful strain during my first few months in the bookie business.

I stuck with it right through to 1972; sixteen years of it. During this time I met with some 'colourful' types, on both sides of the job. I'll tell about some of them next time.

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