Fancy a flutter on the Man Booker? Or a punt on the Mercury music prize?

Gambling on culture is big business – and there’s an extra incentive for manipulating the odds

Latest prices: contenders for this month’s prizes. Montage: Dearbhla Kelly/The Irish Times. Odds from William Hill and Paddy Power on October 3rd. Original photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty

Latest prices: contenders for this month’s prizes. Montage: Dearbhla Kelly/The Irish Times. Odds from William Hill and Paddy Power on October 3rd. Original photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty

Sat, Oct 5, 2013, 01:00

A pony on the nose for Colm Tóibín and a monkey on the jolly for the Mercury. The big rise in culture betting may not have arty types cluttering up bookmakers’ offices and getting in the way of people betting on the 3.30 at Goodwood, but online it’s a different story.

Paddy Power, William Hill and Ladbrokes say that online bets on the Man Booker Prize and the Mercury music prize are at an all-time high and that the market is also growing for the Turner Prize, the Riba Stirling Prize for architecture (given to Astley Castle, in England, last week) and the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction books. The Irish Choice Music Prize, in March each year, has also attracted a growing number of people studying the form and placing bets on the winner, although that market has yet to mature to the point where, as with the Mercury, you can gamble on who you think may make the shortlist.

With the winner of the Man Booker due to be announced on October 15th, followed by the winner of the Mercury on October 31st, the next few weeks will see more first-time online gamblers studying the form book and reviewing the reviews before parting with their money.

“What we find is that this is a different sort of bet to the usual one,” says Féilim Mac An Iomaire of Paddy Power. “The punters know their stuff. We let the early money do the talking in terms of setting odds, and how we price it thereafter really does change depending on our monitoring of online forums and social-media outlets. There tends to be a lot of chatter about these awards, so all this is taken into account with the odds offered on a book or an album.”

Mac An Iomaire says betting on the Man Booker and Mercury prizes now adds up to a five-figure sum. Paddy Power lists both as novelty bets, alongside wagers on the name of Simon Cowell’s baby and who Miley Cyrus’s next boyfriend will be (I put a pony on Zac Efron at 10-1), but interest in the Man Booker bet is growing weekly. The official website for the award even has a page looking at how the shortlisted contenders are faring at the bookies, along with some useful steers, such as “the best return of your cash is offered by Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being at a very tempting 16-1”.

The highbrow culture and politics magazine the Atlantic recently headlined a story on culture betting: “How do you place a winning bet on the Booker prize? Not by reading the novels”. Its advice is simply to aggregate the reviews and put your money on the most critically acclaimed work.

One person
If one person is responsible for the introduction and growth of culture betting then it’s probably Graham Sharpe of William Hill. Part of his job in setting the odds for the Booker and the Mercury is to read and listen to all the shortlisted works.

“Gambling used to be 90 per cent horses and dogs, but now Premiership football and other markets are coming up,” he says. “At William Hill we’ve taken bets on the Booker since the start of the prize, and we are the official bookmakers for the Mercury. We take bets on the Turner, the Stirling, the Samuel Johnson, the World Chess Championship – almost everything.”

Sharpe says that any art or culture prize with a judging panel will attract interest from people who believe they can predict which way the judges will swing.

What may be a fun cultural bet for many can conceal a darker side. “The principles for betting on the Booker or Mercury are basically the same as they are for a horse race or football match,” says Sharpe. “In all cases you look at the form book. The Racing Post may tip a certain horse; a respected critic may tip a Booker winner. But there can be suspicious bets in the culture field. Is it beyond a PR company for a publishing company to spend a couple of grand on a bet just to make it favourite so they can then hail the novel as ‘the bookies’ favourite for the Booker prize’? Because it’s literature and music, don’t think people aren’t just as cynical in their behaviour.

“As an example, would we take a big-money bet on the Booker or the Mercury? What if the person making that bet is related to two of the judges on the panel and has an insider steer? These are all considerations in these markets,” says Sharpe.

“We have a thing we call the field book – that’s all the money taken in on bets for, say, the Booker. If someone wants to put a £20,000 bet on Jim Crace winning the Booker next month, and we have less than that amount in the field book, should we take the bet? We have to cushion ourselves against insider information.”

Media interest
Sharpe notes that the media is now much more interested in culture prizes and that it routinely quotes odds in its coverage. “There’s an award now for the best science book. Look at this year’s Mercury music shortlist – David Bowie is on it. He’s got a massive fan base. A good few of those will want to back him with a bet.”

Sharpe has extensive knowledge of the literary world, but even he has been stung. “One year I was convinced Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, was a Booker certainty and priced it accordingly, but it was beaten [by Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty].”

For this year’s Booker, he thinks it’s a dogfight between Jim Crace’s Harvest and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. “Crace has been around for years and could win as a tribute to his longevity. Catton, though, is at the other end of her career. It’s a tough one. This isn’t like the Grand National, where people will place a bet because they like the name of the horse. There are so many factors you have to consider here.”

Over at this year’s Mercury music prize, the runners and riders can’t compete with the great divide between Crace and Catton (not forgetting Colm Tóibín, who remains joint second favourite to win). Money is going on David Bowie, but he shouldn’t win for a middling to good album. All the bookies have slashed the odds on Disclosure, the runaway favourites, to the extent that it’s hardly worth betting on them. But what if the prickly Mercury judging panel decides, once again, to outwit the bookies?

Lest we forget, this is still gambling. And gambling needs to come with a health warning. As Graham Sharpe puts it, “Today’s £5 punter is tomorrow’s £500 punter.”

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