This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
This article started out very differently.
I'd heard rumblings from a few gambling sources alleging that bookies had been upping restrictions on people's accounts. They'd explain that when they tried to back their chosen horse with a tenner, the bet had been rejected and they'd only been offered a stake of a few quid, if even that. Some even told of how, out of the blue, they'd been informed they could no longer bet, shut out by the ethereal traders whose decisions on such matters are final. Others found themselves being asked for everything from passport scans to months' worth of bank statements before they could withdraw winnings.
Most cases had a mundane explanation. Some people were innocently snared by the tough anti-fraud measures that many bookmakers implement; others had been caught out by the complex terms and conditions that bookies often use (and are being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) over).
A minority, however, believed they were being shut down simply for winning.
These are the high-stakes professional sports bettors who, the more I dug, appeared to be at the heart of a war with bookmakers. Each week they wager thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – through a network of alias accounts, set up using friends' bank details in an elongated game of cat-and-mouse with the bookies.
But this war is only the focal point of a far more damning change in the industry: the way that some bookmakers are identifying and excluding winners, seemingly to ensure that they only take bets from people with a history of losing.
One group firmly on the side of those caught up in this bookmaker clampdown are Justice for Punters. This group of long-time sports bettors are upset at the current state of the industry and, as their name suggests, want more consumer rights for gamblers.
"We were founded for two main reasons," Brian, the group's main media contact, told VICE Sports. "One was the abuse of people's identities. What I mean by that is bookmakers using the quite correct money laundering and underage gambling [rules to] stop paying people out, and stopping people getting the free bets that they're entitled to."
The proof of this, he says, is that whenever he's approached a bookmaker with a specific case and media ready to publish the outcome, the slowest pay-out he's seen has been 48 hours. This would come after sometimes months of the gambler being put through bookmaker checks. In one case, he says that a bookmaker agreed to pay out immediately if the article about the case was dropped: "Does that not tell a story?"
"The other [reason]," he adds, "was the unfair terms and conditions which enable [bookmakers] to let people open accounts and then only let them have two or three bets. It's the redefinition of gambling."
It's this last point that seems to aggrieve Brian the most.
"It's the redefinition of gambling," he reaffirms, "in that gambling is no longer about winning or losing – it's just about losing and, if you win, you will not be allowed to gamble."
What he is referring to is the chief issue for successful gamblers: accounts being closed or limited beyond reasonable use by bookmakers. Currently, this is completely legal. There is no "right to bet" in the UK and as such bookmakers can – and do – exclude at their own discretion.
Of the five major bookmakers contacted for comment on this practice, only one offered a response. BetFred simply stated: "Ultimately we are a business and we do therefore seek to protect ourselves by managing our liabilities with certain customers." The upshot of this is a system where it is perfectly within bookmakers' rights to ban customers exhibiting winning behaviour and only deal with those who show a likelihood of losing.
"If you study in any other form of life, if you work hard at any job, if you're talented, you don't get banned from doing it," explains Brian, who says he's seen this happen with a whole range of bettors.
"They're very suspicious of horse racing bettors, I think more than any other sport," he continues, "and if you're only betting in singles – you don't do doubles, you don't do accumulators, you don't do Lucky 15s – you're flagged up straight away. If you are placing bets mainly on horses at bigger prices, you will be flagged up. If you're backing them each way and balancing out the each way as just being a save, you'll be flagged up. If you're regularly backing horses that shorten in price after you back them, you will be flagged up."
The eye of the bookmakers isn't only drawn to horses, however; nor, necessarily, to winners. According to one high-stakes bettor who spoke to VICE Sports, regardless of whether or not individual accounts were in the green, merely betting in a way that was potentially profitable would draw focus.
Kevin – not his real name, to protect both himself and those whose bank accounts he uses to open gambling accounts – told us: "The minute they sense – and they only have to sense, they don't even have to have proof, I've had accounts closed which have been losing accounts – they think, 'this guy might know what he's doing.... Okay, he's losing, but he might start winning...'. If they get that feeling and they notice it, they'll close you down," he says.
Kevin is a successful handicap bettor. He followed his sport of choice closely, and found he had a good strike rate in predicting if a team would beat the spread. Starting small over a decade ago, Kevin invested £1,000 into the system he'd developed. Gradually, as profits increased, he upped the ante. Within a few years he was running at full force and was wagering around £2,500 per game. This meant that each week Kevin could easily stake over £30,000, and getting that amount past the bookies was a struggle. About half would go on exchanges, and the rest was spread in small bets across his network of accounts set up with the personal details of friends who had leant him their identity.
He's forced to use these alias accounts because, thanks to his record, he is either banned from every major online bookmaker or so limited that he can't put close to enough on to contribute to his £2,500 per match total bet. He's got setting up these accounts down to a fine art.
"When I ask them for the debit card I also ask for a photocopy of their passport or driver's licence, and then a utility bill, and I go about on the same day opening accounts with all the main bookies I use, about 20-odd," Kevin explains.
After opening the accounts he'll make a small deposit and withdrawal to try and pre-empt any major identity checks further down the line when much, much more money is in the account.
"I would essentially test each account first to see what kind of things they wanted from you, make sure I'd satisfied that. Then, after placing a proper bet – and if it won – you're withdrawing £2,000 and you want to be confident you can do it without any trouble."
Kevin is far from alone in using this sort of system. Another professional bettor I spoke with does the same.
John – again, not his real name – bets on horse racing as a full-time source of income. He's worried enough about having his business pulled out from under him that he's unwilling to go on the record with specific details. John would only agree to talk on the record about the general gist of what he does.
Speaking to him, though, did confirm the modus operandi of the high-stakes sports bettor. He also has a network of alias accounts across a spread of bookmakers, using the identities of trusted friends to place his bets in return for a slice of the profits. He even makes a point that, technically, they are "betting together". If he were to pay them for access, that could be classed as a taxable service (whereas all gambling winnings in the UK are tax free).
Speaking to people like John and Kevin, they come across as somewhere between brash and indifferent about what they do. In much the same way that people who smoke weed don't care about breaking the law because they believe what they're doing shouldn't be illegal in the first place, banned winners seem to feel that they're only doing this because the bookmakers themselves are forcing their hand.
They are adamant, though, that while what they do does break bookmaker terms and conditions, they are not committing criminal fraud.
They also agree that they wouldn't do it if they didn't have to, and know the solution they'd prefer. Much like Justice for Punters, they want an Australian "Fair Go" provision. This rule would state that bookmakers have to accept a bet with potential winnings up to a fixed sum, and could not refuse bets below that. The magical sum floated in high-stakes circles is for potential winnings of up to £500, meaning £250 at evens or £50 at 10/1.
Currently, however, there is nothing like this on the books or in the works, and that doesn't look like changing. The Gambling Commission, who hand out gambling licences, equate excluding winning bettors with other businesses refusing to deal with high-risk customers. In a statement to VICE Sports, they said: "Companies are free to choose who they do business with. Gambling operators who turn down bets from selected consumers are acting in the same way as other businesses such as insurance companies (who can refuse to take on clients based on assessment of commercial risk)." Meanwhile, the CMA said that as there is no current rule against banning winners, there is nothing they can do.
Both also condemned the use of alias accounts to continue to bet after being excluded for being a "commercial risk".
The Gambling Commission do have a point. Even Brian and Justice for Punters don't expect bookmakers to endlessly pay out and, while interesting, hearing about the struggles of someone wagering £30,000 doesn't garner the most sympathy. Instead, it boils down to an issue of fairness.
Bookmaking is a hugely lucrative business; Bet365's profits were last reported in the region of £450m, while William Hill believe their 2016 profits will be "at the bottom end" of estimates suggesting £260m-£280m. With that amount of money to be made, far more than any cabal of winning customers could ever dent, it certainly rubs the wrong way that intelligent betting is being targeted.
Of course, instituting a "Fair Go" rule wouldn't benefit most ordinary gamblers, who are unaffected by the hefty penalties and restrictions put on high-stakes bettors. For us mere mortals, staking £30,000 a weekend and earning a living from the profits seems like paperback twaddle – escapism at its finest. When talking with those for whom it is a reality, it can feel like the 'everyman' argument is deployed in the same way a politician might use it – laying out a policy purporting to help everyday folks when, in reality, it would be a wealthy elite who'd benefit most.
Still, bookmaking used to be just that: trying to make a book by balancing winners and losers, ensuring you had your odds set right so that regardless of where the smart money went, enough was bet and lost for you still to profit. Nowadays, though, as Brian rightly said, it seems like bookmaking has been redefined.
Thanks to the ability to ban winners and primarily deal with reliable losers, companies don't need to worry about making a book. They're simply left to print money, selling the dream of "the Ladbrokes life" or joining "the world's largest sports betting community" before ejecting anyone who comes close.
It is not bookmaking and, while legal, it is not fair. Should an industry that takes so much from so many really have uncapped powers to ensure it will always be a one-way market?