What would sport be without a spot of jiggery-pokery?
Gambling keeps television sport alive. And its history runs from Lord’s cricket ground to the mafia
Think not a lot could connect a pioneering New York mob boss with the man for whom cricket’s grandest ground is named? Think again.
They are awkward bedfellows because of money, which they knew was readily generated in gambling on sport.
And before television bought sport lock, stock and smoking broadcast rights deals, everything sport achieved as an industry was paid for by gambling.
These days television and sport are each other’s life support. What keeps television sport alive? Gambling.
The life of Arnold Rothstein, nicknamed “The Brain” by Damon Runyon for his reimagining and reorganisation of common thuggery as the profitable business we now call the mafia, was always going to end badly.
It did in November 1928 when he was rubbed out when he refused to pay up after racking up debts of what in today’s money would be $5-million in a poker game he considered fixed.If Rothstein’s name rings a bell it’s because he’s the figure most often accused of fixing baseball’s World Series in 1919 — which the Chicago White Sox admitted throwing, creating what the papers enthusiastically wrote up as “the Black Sox scandal”.
Rothstein denied his involvement to a grand jury. Another theory is that he said it ain’t so with reference to one plot but was central to another, and even that he was in on both ends of the fix.
There is less doubt that he fixed more horseraces than you could shake a whip at, including at the track he owned in Maryland.
The son of a banker and the younger brother of a rabbi, Rothstein was a bad man to the bitter end. “Me mudder did it,” he told the cops when they pitched up at his deathbed to ask who shot him.
Thomas Lord, Yorkshire-born but a Londoner all his adult life, was engaged as a general skivvy at the White Conduit Club (WCC) in the days when gentlemen batted and professionals bowled.Lord was, of course, a bowler among as ripe a collection of cricketing young and old farts as could be found.
In 1786 two of his supposed betters at the WCC, the ninth earl of Winchilsea and the fourth duke of Richmond, known by their titled peers as George Finch and Charles Lennox, tasked Lord, and backed him financially, with finding a ground that was less accessible by the public.
Among the motivations put forward for the move was that Joe and Joanne Soap were sometimes less than complimentary about the poncy players’ efforts. That’s right: what became, in 1787, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) was snobbish even before it existed.
Importantly, entry to a ground that was less like a public park and more like today’s stadiums could be controlled by the sale of tickets — and that meant cricket’s burgeoning betting market could be kept from prying eyes and thus more easily manipulated.
After two false starts in other parts of London, what we call Lord’s — don’t forget the indelible apostrophe — opened for business in June 1814.And we do mean business. In 1793 alone one of the previous Lord’s grounds hosted 14 matches that attracted a total of 11,000 guineas — a guinea is a pound and a shilling — in bets.
Most of them would have been laid by the earls and dukes of the day, who had inherited money to burn unlike people who had to work for a living.
When the MCC assumed superiority over every organisation in cricket, just a year after the club was founded, their rendition of the laws included regulations on gambling, as had two previous versions issued by other clubs.
You can see where this is going. In 1785, Finch himself — remember him, the ninth earl of Winchilsea — recruited Billy Beldham, then 19 and on his way to becoming a revered player, having seen him in action a year earlier.
In an interview with James Pycroft, a noted writer on cricket, in 1836, Beldham was quoted as saying: “You may hear that I sold matches. I will confess I once was sold myself by two men, one of whom would not bowl, and the other would not bat, his best, and lost 10 pounds.“The next match, at Nottingham, I joined in selling, and got my money back. But for this once, I could say I never was bought in my life; and this was not for want of offers from C [sic] and other turfmen, though often I must have been accused.
“For where it was worthwhile to buy, no man could keep a character; because to be out without runs or to miss a catch was, by the disappointed betting-men, deemed proof as strong as Holy Writ.”
Which sounds a bit like Hansie Cronje blaming the devil for making him do it. Perhaps South Africa’s crooked captain should have blamed the British aristocracy instead.
Pycroft held up cricket as the epitome of life as a Victorian gentleman: “Cricket is essentially Anglo-Saxon ... Foreigners have rarely imitated us. English settlers everywhere play at cricket; but of no single club have we heard that dieted either with frogs, sour-kraut [sic] or macaroni.”
But, odd ideas and all, he knew corruption when he saw it: “Lord’s [at the turn of the 19th century] was frequented by men with book and pencil, betting as openly and professionally as in the [boxing] ring at Epsom, and ready to deal in the odds with any and every person of speculative propensities.”Rothstein, had he been old enough at the time and on the right side of the Atlantic, would doubtless have jumped in, expensive shoes and all, at Lord’s with offers that couldn’t be refused to make sure the ball bounced his bank balance’s way.
Not a lot has changed, except that betting companies now sponsor teams and advertise on mainstream sport websites.
And that the gambling industry has grown exponentially in the Internet age. Globally, the online sport and gaming betting business is set to be worth almost $60-billion by 2020, and most of it will be spent from half a world away by people watching television.
This also holds true in the bricks-and-mortar world. Show me a betting shop and I will show you walls covered in televisions beaming events thousands of kilometres distant. True story: on April 2 2011 — the day of the cricket World Cup final between Sri Lanka and India in Colombo — I walked into a gambling den in Galle, Sri Lanka and was able to watch live racing from Turffontein, Johannesburg.
Maybe Rothstein wouldn’t have been shot had he been playing poker from behind a screen in 1928.
Maybe Lord would have cut to the chase and become an online bookmaker, and Lord’s wouldn’t exist.
But it’s no maybe that sport and gambling are as wedded to each other now as they were then, and will be long after television is obsolete and every game we watch — and bet on — is streamed online, perhaps even from empty stadiums.
Don’t think so? Want to bet on it?