LIVERPOOL, England — I began by wagering 10 British pounds sterling ($13.50) on a dog named Callums Secret in the 6:19 race of Wednesday evening down at Hove on the English Channel, choosing him from the six-dog field because the tip sheet claimed he “won’t shirk the issue but needs some better luck.” I think we all love a dog who won’t shirk the issue, and in fact love dogs in general because they so seldom shirk the issue. They’re all about not shirking issues.
Off at 5-1, he did not shirk the issue in his early strides on the video screen in the gambling shop here on England’s west coast, but then another factor kicked in down at Hove, a factor known as “life.” In life, not shirking the issue can be not enough, so the smallish video screen soon did not contain Callums Secret anymore. He finished sixth of six, well behind front-runners Droopys Tony and Lemon Derek. That’s too bad, but I still don’t think he shirked the issue.
In a possible glimpse at the future look and feel of many American towns after the Supreme Court on Monday struck down the federal law banning legalized betting on college and professional sports, such gambling is, of course, commoner than commonplace in this United Kingdom. Reside here, and the William Hill betting shops, the Ladbrokes, the Paddy Power, the Betfred and the whole lot become part of your daily tapestry until they go unnoticed to habitual non-wagerers like myself.
In a central square beneath the conspicuous Radio Tower in this city, just for one, there’s the 152-year-old Liverpool Playhouse, a department store, a Turkish barber shop, some pubs, some cafes and two gambling shops. Go a block and a half off the square, and find three more: one between an office-furniture store and a fish-and-chips shop, one in a procession of mobile-phone shop, Turkish barber, Western Union, gambling shop and photo store (with the British Heart Foundation across the street), and one next to a pretty pizzeria with artfully constructed pastries.
Rather than something set apart or stashed in a strip mall on some ugly boulevard, it’s entrenched and mingling with everyday life in a secular country that legalized gambling in 1960. “Ever since the national lottery was introduced in 1994, I’ve argued that totally changed people’s attitudes in terms of making gambling more accepted and more condoned,” said Mark Griffiths, the Nottingham Trent University professor who has studied gambling for 31 years. He also said: “Because you see it all the time, it’s become normalized. Don’t get me wrong: There are still anti-gambling groups in the U.K., but they’re few and far between.”
Studies over the past 20 years have found the ratio of problem gamblers steady at about “naught-point-five (0.5) percent,” he said, even if recent years have brought both smartphones and a proliferation of ways to bet on in-game vagaries such as — good grief — whether a soccer match will include 10 or more corner kicks.
I can’t bet. It just doesn’t goose my bloodstream. I maintain other vices. I’ve made the occasional, dimwitted wager on a Kentucky Derby horse, and little else. My favorite gambling story involves two other people, Irish construction workers in a Barcelona pub around 4 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 4, 2008, NFL novices who asked me if the New York Giants would get to finish their downs if the clock ran out against the unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII — good question — because they had bet on the outcome with, as terms: “The winner gets to hit the loser in the face.”
I already knew Britons tend to bet only while breathing, and that they bet colorfully and comprehensively — and that’s just on golf. I just had never seen a real soccer gambling sheet until Wednesday night, when I set about trying to feel the American future. I entered a William Hill, saw some roulette machines and found a rack of soccer sheets, voluminous and intimidating, pages and pages with wee print on the FA Cup final of May 19 (Manchester United vs. Chelsea), the Champions League final of May 26 (Liverpool vs. Real Madrid), the World Cup coming in June, and who would score goals, and how many, and when. An entire page concerned halftimes. One could bet on such minutiae as whether a match would have a red card.
What a wretched way to watch a beautiful sport.
Farther along on the wall were the horse charts with the track names often mystical: Newton Abbot, Yarmouth, York, Bath, Punchestown, Perth Jumps. The audible commentary in the room told of one horse “wearing blinkers for the first time,” or another “not in a cooperative mood” for the 5:55 at Bath. A trickle of people from seemingly every continent except Antarctica came and played machines and went. A schnauzer on a leash arrived twice.
So many dizzying options: They were underway — at last! — at Finger Lakes in New York, a flat American accent calling the action. A dog named Solid Cognac won at Doncaster. Yet I had never bet on steeplechase, as we’d call it, and the Perth Jumps were underway in Perth — Scotland, not Australia. Here came a race called the Ballathie House Hotel Galloping Gourmet Classic Handicap Chase, clearly a must, especially with tip comments such as that Solway Trigger has seemed “patchy at best over fences to date” — look, we’re all patchy over fences — and that the gaping distance (three miles!) for Ardmillan “looks as far as he’d want it” — and farther than I’d want it.
Steeped in meekness, I put 10 pounds ($13.50) on a second-tier choice named Orioninverness, for personal reasons both nice and dumb. If you’ve just come from the Kentucky Derby, the steeplechase distance can test your fruit-fly attention span. You might keep wondering when they’ll finish or whether, at some point, they’ll veer off into a forest. Orioninverness systematically picked his way from yonder through to second place with a non-shirked charge until the final jump, where he went over and tumbled down on his head.
I gasped loudly, the lone gasper in a room of eight-odd souls.
With incompetence and fret for Orioninverness established, two soccer matches of moderate note set to kick. I made two bets on the underdog Scunthorpe in the English third-tier-league playoff match at Rotherham United, and five on the Atletico Madrid-Marseille tilt in gorgeous Lyon, France, in the Europa League final, that event akin to college basketball’s NIT, only more treasured. They totaled 80 pounds ($108). Then, in one of the world’s friendliest cities, I got advice to hit the venerable White Star pub five minutes away, so as to mix gambling with drinking.
In the ideal White Star, I wound up alone in the front room, a sad-sack sap babysitting bets through Atletico Madrid’s 3-0 win. People watch sports for different reasons, so my joy stemmed from the sublime voice of broadcaster Ian Darke, who noted that the renowned defenders of Atletico Madrid “subject their opponents to a slow kind of strangulation” and referred to their riveting striker, the Frenchman Antoine Griezmann, as “an electric eel of a striker.”
I had bet the number of corner kicks (a loss), that Marseille would lead at halftime (a loss), that Atletico Madrid would win 3-1 (a near-win). I also had bet that Griezmann would score in both halves and, as of the 49th minute, he had, so I had to parade back with slight happiness to the William Hill, where the blond lad behind the window had to buzz me in.
“Let me just get you some money out of the safe,” he said soon.
The dude was going to the safe! For me!
He handed me 220 pounds ($296) which, because this was a work assignment, means I owe The Washington Post 120 pounds ($161). As I wondered if there’s a way to file an expense report with a negative balance and felt the connectedness of the world with all its earnest dogs and jumping horses and corner kicks, I emerged in the English present and the American future to hear a song playing on the narrow street, a fitting song, one of the best songs ever written: the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.”
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