A balding and naturally slight man who spent his free hours in the gym, Iacovou had worked for Ladbrokes for more than 20 years. Iacovou had run a Ladbrokes in Wimbledon, a Ladbrokes in Earlsfield and another Ladbrokes in Morden before moving to his current branch, a glass-fronted shop next to a supermarket, just across the A24 from Morden tube. For more than two decades with the firm, he had seen through changes to the staff uniform tomato-red polo shirts, now as well as a series of dispiriting adjustments to his daily workload.
In the s, when Iacovou first met his wife, Anita, then a Post Office employee, he worked at the Wimbledon branch. It shut to customers at 5. His Morden branch, in , was open seven days a week, from 8. Iacovou generally worked five of those days, sometimes six, often from start to finish. For some hours in the afternoon he would be joined at the till by an assistant, a cashier who helped him process handwritten bets that came in over the counter.
Otherwise, Iacovou manned the shop alone, relying on his regulars for company. Both drivers brought with them takeaway coffees for Iacovou, who could not leave the shop unless his cashier was there. The branch had a regular named Ray, who bet horses, and Kistensamy, who bet horses, and Bill, who only bet dogs.
That Friday, Aarij complained to the manager about a problem with one of these machines. Iacovou had to come out from behind his counter to see what was wrong. At the end of the day these machines had to be laboriously emptied of takings and the shop otherwise shut down. He was exhausted, his wife recalled, and he slept in his uniform. In the morning, Iacovou took the bus back to the Morden branch, arriving at around 8am, in time to meet a colleague from another Ladbrokes who had come to collect a set of spare keys.
The pair chatted briefly. There had been a time when they might have been rostered to spend Saturday together in the shop, but no longer. Iacovou was not expecting his cashier to arrive until after lunch. The managers said goodbye to each other and Iacovou began to prepare for trade, turning on the machines and checking that each of their coin and note slots were functioning properly.
He put up pages from the Racing Post and took out cleaning products to tidy his counter area. Iacovou opened a locked door that separated the shop floor from his service area and sat down at his till. As it turned 8. The first customer was Shafique Aarij. That morning he was carrying a shoulder bag.
He went to one of the gambling machines. As had happened the day before, Aarij signalled to Iacovou that there was a problem with his machine. The manager stood up and started to unlock the door beside his counter. As soon as the latch was turned, Aarij pushed in. He grabbed Iacovou around the neck. The two men struggled.
Aarij took a claw hammer from his bag and struck Iacovou over the head with it. He struck again, and again, and then he turned his attention to the safe. It is a rare British high street that has not come to be kitted out, today, in the colours of the bookmakers. In every town, on every retail row, the routine sweep of bank and salon and shrunken supermarket will be studded at almost mathematical intervals by the red of a Ladbrokes storefront or the blue and yellow of a William Hill , likely as well by the blue of a Coral, the blue and red of a Betfred, the pale green of a Stan James or the clover-leaf shade of a Paddy Power.
In total, there are around 9, licensed betting shops in the UK, around half of those operated by Ladbrokes and William Hill. The two corporations are great and bitter rivals, tracing a contempt for one another back to the s. Difficult as it is to credit now, both companies once shared a snotty attitude about the idea of bookmakers having shops. Up to the s it reckoned itself too posh for street-level trade.
Bookmakers at the time operated under licence only at racetracks, or took bets from private customers by post or telephone. Profits made in this way were undermined by a thriving black market in illegal street betting. Before the tonnes of lurid acrylic got hoisted into place on shop fronts nationwide, British bookmaking had as its most visible identifier a lone man or boy, waiting with a satchel of money on any street corner that had a choice of escape routes.
Betting shops were legalised in All had windows that were blacked out, at government insistence, to discourage loitering. Cashiers took in money and sometimes gave it out. Customers could not drink in betting shops, but they could smoke. These were bolt-holes, very often in the backstreets, stuffy but social, somewhere to be. And they were popular, particularly with working-class men. William Hill had shops by , and Ladbrokes more than His company was bought by Sears Holdings Limited in , and then traded on again through a number of conglomerates.
They had 1, shops each, then 2, Instead of pencils came that icon of the modern betting shop, the complimentary pen: stubby, flat edged, much-chucked in frustration, apparently of limitless supply. Regulation changes in the s allowed TVs to be installed in shops, bringing in races and results direct from horse and greyhound tracks. Cashiers, in the s, got networked computers.
The major bookmakers also launched and invested in dotcom operations, but they were not especially light-footed about it, and their profits were eaten into by an online-only service named Betfair that empowered its customers to act as bookies themselves, setting odds and taking bets from one another. Takings fell. Broadly speaking, there was less profit for bookmakers there: in football, unlike in a or rider horse race, only one side could fail to win.
Takings fell further. FOBTs, when they came, were accepting of much larger sums than the fruit machines that preceded them. Losers lost faster, and losing became an identifiably scratchier thing. Staff explained: the customer who backed a too-slow horse or a crap dog might afterwards rail at fate or the gods, or even the employees behind their counters. But they could not plausibly claim to have been cheated.
Machine players brought with them a new paranoia. FOBTs are fixed, thus the name — fixed-odds betting terminals. Over time they will pay back to customers Many shop workers I spoke to had stories about looking on, impotent, as the machines under their charge were angrily destroyed by the customers who had been playing them. Worse, somehow, was when a machine was calmly destroyed. According to figures I have seen, the number of incidents of damage to machines in Ladbrokes branches rose steadily between and And how many casinos, they asked, got by without bouncers to cope with aggrieved gamblers?
How many were run by individuals on their own? The policy meant that, subject to certain conditions, including a risk assessment of individual branches and a tick-box check of employee competence, shops could be run by one person for periods of the day and night.
In fact, in the majority of shops, there would be a mandatory number of hours during which there could only be one person rostered to work. People at all levels of the company told me they were in no doubt as to why it was introduced. Ladbrokes said this was a result of cuts in staffing at all levels, not specifically on shop floors. At shop level, a choice: work on your own, or risk your job. At first, those who agreed to single-man were paid extra — something like an additional 40p an hour.
The hourly pay for branch managers, who are known internally at Ladbrokes as customer service managers, varies by area and age. Internal Ladbrokes sources spoke candidly to me on the condition that I not use their names. So did most of the dozens of betting shop workers I consulted for this story.
Entering branches around the UK, and introducing myself as a reporter, I became used to a singular response: behind the counter their eyes would flick, instinctively, to the nearest CCTV camera. Employees said they feared the sack if they complained in public forums about their working conditions.
A Ladbrokes employee in Birmingham reported the same. Many of the part-time-working students and other junior staff I interviewed insisted they did not expect to be in their jobs for ever, that a pervasive industry gloom would soon flush them out — but that they needed good references, so could their names be left out of my story?
I met working parents, working parents-to-be, second-generation staff who worked in branches with their parents, and other employees who could not risk dismissal, so asked to speak anonymously. But they spoke. The area manager in the north recalled his shame at telling staff who were unnerved by single-manning in its early phase that they were really in no extra danger.
Persuading his staff became easier when other major betting chains started to single-man. Employees at Betfred, Stan James, Coral and Paddy Power told me they were all asked to work in their shops alone on a frequent basis. Andrew and Anita Iacovou first met inside a Ladbrokes. It was a Saturday in April , Grand National weekend.
Anita had put an each-way bet on a horse called Party Politics. When her horse finished second, she took her ticket to Iacovou, who was working behind the counter. They started talking. Iacovou was 37 and had grown up not far away, in South Norwood. His father was Greek and his mother English.
Anita was 34, second-generation Indian, with dark hair that she tied back in a knot. Iacovou must have been distracted, chatting, because he shorted Anita on her winnings. They married in and later had two sons. In , the family moved to a flat in Cheam.
For five years, until , Iacovou worked at a Ladbrokes a walk away, on Tudor Drive. Then he was moved to the branch near Morden tube. But after a while, Punjabi recalled, Iacovou asked him not to bring the family on these trips, fearing they would be vulnerable in the car outside.
The sensation of safety is not a hard currency; it cannot be passed around in token form. The Morden Ladbrokes had CCTV cameras inside it, a steel-framed front door with a magnetic lock, a latch-lock on the door between the shop floor and the service area, and an employee panic button under the counter. As dozens of shop employees pointed out to me, however, it is still possible to feel unsafe in the middle of a fortress like this, particularly at night, particularly when unaccompanied.
The deputy manager of a Betfred in Sussex was working on her own when one night she was threatened with rape by a frustrated machine gambler. For a while she took anti-anxiety medication, she said, to be able to keep working, and then she resigned. Certain branches in certain areas were from the start deemed too dangerous to be single-manned.
Part of the way Ladbrokes decided this was by considering unpleasant incidents that had already taken place inside a shop. It rated such incidents by degree. Suffer enough twos or threes and head office would take a shop off the single-manning list, at least for a short while. Anita worried for her husband. You did not have to search especially hard for stories about violence in British betting shops at the time.
A machete robbery at a Betfred in Ashton-in-Makerfield in March A man who had entered a Ladbrokes in Southampton in April , and leapt over the counter with a kitchen knife. Between them, the Iacovous had an arrangement: Andrew would call Anita from his shop, usually at about 8.
On Saturday 25 May, Anita did not receive the expected call. She rang the shop and got no answer. She continued to call. Trying to work out what had happened later, police investigators rewatched CCTV footage recorded in the shop. They saw Shafique Aarij struggle with Iacovou behind the counter.
This was at 8. They saw Aarij hit Iacovou with a hammer, multiple times. Blood spotted his face, and he wiped at it. Within minutes of the attack Aarij had left the shop. Aarij must have taken this when he fled, at around 8. For between 45 minutes and an hour, nobody outside the Morden branch was aware that anything unusual had happened inside. Andrew Iacovou lay in such a way behind his counter that he could not be seen from the shop floor. Customers came and went.
Someone played on one of the machines. Eventually Kistensamy, one of the regulars, approached the counter and saw a body. He ran to the supermarket next door and raised the alarm. An ambulance came. Iacovou was pronounced dead by paramedics at From branch to branch, rumours of a murder spread.
Staff at a William Hill in Glasgow heard that an employee had been stabbed. At a Coral in Hemel Hempstead it was said that someone had been shot. Robbery gone wrong? Was he single-manning? This was one of their great fears. In the Facebook group, a discussion about possible strike action led nowhere. A hopeless, gravedigger humour set in instead. I was told by well-placed sources that this rumour was accurate.
The operator also saw the cleaning materials that Iacovou had put out on his service area. It was assumed that Aarij was a cleaner who must have pressed the panic button by mistake. In Cheam, Anita Iacovou heard nothing all morning. At 2pm, police visited her at the flat. Anita was asked to step in to her bedroom to speak with a policewoman.
Some of the illegal bookies made it through the new vetting procedures, established by the Betting and Gaming Act, but a lot of them found that the capital required to set up premises, pay staff and "go straight" was beyond them. The existing betting firms had run their businesses for on-course clients and for those with the financial credit and technical telephone means to place off-course bets.
Scotland's most famous bookmaker, the Glaswegian John Banks, was in no doubt about the value of being on the high street, however: "Betting shops are a licence to print money. Not all of them wanted to embrace the world of mass betting, partly because of the capital investment required.
One of the godfathers of English bookmaking, William Hill, who had started his business in , wanted nothing to do with betting shops, only buying into them in The other source of the reluctance was Rab Butler's insistence that betting shops should have "dead windows", blacked-out or shuttered with no visible enticements to prospective punters.
Butler noted in his memoirs that "the House of Commons was so intent on making betting shops as sad as possible, in order not to deprave the young, that they ended up more like undertakers' premises". A small personal narrative kicks in here. He left me in the car for a moment as he went inside, carrying a small bag.
I saw more cars pull up and more men go inside. Moments later, a scene reminiscent of the Keystone Cops ensued, as men fled from the pub, with many of them jumping out of windows. I never did find out exactly what had happened that night but my best guess is that a delivery of punters' money was taking place to a bookmaker when tax officials decided to make a raid.
I had clearly been used as a decoy, as no one would suspect a man with a small child in tow of such skulduggery. The fact that one of dad's best friends at the factory left to set up two betting shops, and for whom he went to work as a settler the person who works out the winnings of a bet on Saturdays, convinced me that they had been in cahoots as runners inside English Electric.
I should also add that there wasn't a family holiday that didn't take in a trip to a racecourse en route. What clinched the case, however, was my dad's objection to having a betting shop open about 10 yards from our house. I can remember him saying: "I know the sort of people who'll be in there This element of seediness was assigned to betting shops at birth, some of it wilfully imposed by authorities, some of it inevitably inherited from the association of betting with rough behaviour and fecklessness.
No wonder many bookmakers opted for the euphemism "turf accountant". Inside, the betting shops of the s were no brighter than their front windows. A mesh grille would guard a Formica counter, behind which the bookie would sit, smoking. And somewhere would stand the "board-man". It was his job to mark up the results, and also the prices for races as they drew close to the off, so that punters could "take" a price if a horse's odds were shortening. The board-man, and everybody else for that matter, got their information from "the blower", a wire service from Extel, which relayed the prices from the racecourses and added a commentary.
Once the "off" was called, punters stared up at the speaker, imagining themselves to be out of their dull, urban world and away in the fresh air of a countryside racecourse. The commentaries from the blower were nothing like the frenzied, breathless accounts we get in betting shops today when, ironically, we can now see what is taking place, but rather bland, staccato bursts of information, without any hint of drama or emotion — perhaps that was another secret directive from government: don't get the punters excited.
It wasn't until that further gambling legislation allowed betting shops to be "improved" — the provision of hot drinks, albeit from a machine; brighter interiors, with seats for comfort; and, best of all, television pictures from the racecourses. By this time, four major firms had grown to dominate the betting-shop market — William Hill, Ladbrokes, Coral and Mecca. The Tote, the state-owned on-course pool-betting facility — about to be put up for sale by the Government — was also buying shops in the high street.
Such was the success of these operators that they became the subject of corporate mergers and takeovers, the sort of event that happened to industrial or retail companies. Mecca, owned by Grand Metropolitan, merged with William Hill in , while Ladbrokes' chief executive, Cyril Stein, was making a name for himself as an aggressive, almost renegade City operator. Ladbrokes would eventually tie up with Hilton Hotels.
In , William Hill was acquired by the film and leisure conglomerate Brent Walker. Less than 40 years on from the world of "rickety wooden stairs", betting shops had become a seriously big business. I even invented a method of writing up an 'in-running' commentary on the race itself for my customers before I became a settler, and then a manager. This was a job I enjoyed for two or three years before moving into the PR and media side of the company.
Graham Sharpe's journey from the boards to being the most high-profile of all bookmaking PR men he hosts and sponsors the annual William Hill Sports Book of the Year awards, and produces a regular list of wacky bets for the public to nibble on reflects the assimilation of betting shops into our culture and also the way their employees could rise into management from the shop floor. Mr Sharpe, and his counterpart at Ladbrokes, Mike Dillon, are smart enough to have succeeded in any business, and they are both well-enough respected to have the ear of racing's authorities.
They could probably seek high office, but both love the daily rough and tumble of betting, having cut their teeth in the shops. On another occasion a manager came back from a long lunch, slightly on the woozy side, to find a crowd of punters wanting payouts from unsettled bets — he promptly started a cake-throwing fight with them!
Matters were not so frivolous in betting shops when the National Lottery, and its attendant scratchcards, started in Those who had two or three quid bets in the shops hoping to win 10 back could now bet for jackpots of over a million pounds. The lottery created hysteria for a while, with people who had never placed a bet in their life queuing up in their corner shops before the Saturday-evening deadline. Indeed a recent government survey on gambling revealed that among people who bet, 57 per cent still use the lottery, and 20 per cent buy scratchcards, with 17 per cent loyal to horseracing.
In the past decade, several measures have been taken to rebalance the nation's gambling instincts. Tax on betting-shop wagers was cut from 10 per cent to 9 per cent creating a live Sudoku puzzle for punters and settlers alike , and then eventually abolished in , in favour of a tax on the bookies' gross profits.
Rules regarding betting on football were relaxed — the "minimum trebles" stipulation, whereby punters had to include at least three matches on their coupon, was dropped, allowing bets on single matches. Clients such as these usually have huge deposit accounts, from which the firm draws their stakes, and they deal directly with the bookmakers' trading rooms, not with their shops.
If you look in most betting-shop windows now, the advertising they display mostly features odds for football games. More recently, betting shops have been allowed to install what the trade calls FOBTs fixed-odds betting terminals and what some would still call fruit machines, or more graphically, one-armed bandits.
And then there is "racing" from such computer-generated courses as Portman Park a gag, I guess, about Portman Square, former home of the Jockey Club to fill time before the real racing starts. By the turn of the century, the betting shop had developed a cyber-twin as most of the big bookmaking firms began to realise the potential of online betting, and the betting exchanges — Betfair, Betdaq — opened up.
Victor Chandler, the smartest of British bookmakers, both sartorially and intellectually, had been at the front of the march into the digital age. His wholesale move to Gibraltar, rendering his clients' bets offshore, and therefore tax-free, forced the Treasury into their adjustments on betting duty. The volume of telephone business was soon matched by trade on the internet — Mr Chandler went on to sell 41 of his betting shops to Coral but at the same time, invested heavily in two up-market "betting lounges", all marble-floors and leather chairs, one off Park Lane in London, the other in Dublin.
But could Mr Chandler's underlying instinct be right? There is a new generation of punters who only know web, electronic or telephone betting. They sit up all night gambling on distant tennis matches, or playing online poker, or jousting in a cyber-casino. To these guys, a betting shop is a relic of a former age. Who needs cash in a cashless society? When their money counts most, when they reach executive positions, will the betting shop be finished?
The figures suggest not — the four biggest companies still seem strongly committed to betting shops. William Hill currently runs more than 2,; Ladbrokes has 2,; Coral owns 1,; and totesport manages And there are groups of expansive firms showing no loss of appetite for shop-based betting.
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