Bookies and the Booker

In 1971, the Man Booker Prize committee succeeded in persuading Saul Bellow to be one of the judges. The nattily dressed, sharp-tongued American writer could only think of one hotel fit for his London stay, and perhaps, ego: The Ritz on Piccadilly. Maybe it was a silent nod to Proust, who famously adored the Ritz in Paris. As the story goes, on his deathbed Proust wanted a cold beer, but it had to be from the establishment of César Ritz! Anyway, back to Bellow and the Booker. Even though Bellow’s demand was met, he was furious. His room did not have the desired view—a window overlooking Green Park, which is on one side of the hotel. It remains my favourite story from the Booker bunker.

That year VS Naipaul won the prize for In a Free State, which beat the favourite: Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. Naipaul was, for want of a better expression, an ‘outsider’, and this meant major waves in the literary world. Back then the bookmakers hadn’t quite worked out the market for literary bets, but inevitably, given the fact that guessing the winning writer in any given year was more horse race than anything else, they soon did. By the mid-70’s, betting agencies wheeled in the aesthetic of bookmaking into a highbrow, slow-paced market of literary prizes. The nation’s obsession with placing for anything and everything now had an intellectual twist. And once in, always in! The bookies have kept the practice going with every Booker – to the extent the official website for the award (themanbookerprize.com) mention the betting odds for the six shortlisted books.

It is a big year for the prize this year, which hitherto remained exclusive to Commonwealth (and ex-Commonwealth) nations. The Man Group decided to change the rules, welcoming submissions from anywhere in the world as long as the books were in English and published in the UK. Sure enough, the bookies quickly reacted by creating a new bet: the likelihood of the winner to be an American! But one wonders, how do bookmakers judge who’s likely to win? And how often has the favourite actually won? Or, to put it differently, what is their maths to figure out the odds? It is trickier than it looks—they obviously want ‘the house’, i.e., themselves, to win but also give enough to whet the appetite of the punters.

The Booker is famous for its surprises. In spite of that, the bookies get it right...well, most of the time. I’m not sure if they read all the books in the Booker thoroughbred stakes but do admit to reading a vast number of reviews to form a good sense about how good a book is. They then use certain dependable calculations– overlay their matrix so to speak – to fix the odds. They are, of course, more interested in the sense and reactions of the bettors, and can change their odds accordingly, or if necessary, close the bets. Take Tom McCarthy’s novel C, for example. In 2010, one betting agency suspended their bets for this shortlisted title after a surge of bets was placed on one midweek morning. A total of £15,000 was placed in under 3 hours forcing the bookies to react. Howard Jacobson won that year for The Finkler Question; the bookies had got that one wrong. The following year, Julian Barnes came from behind to win the prize for The Sense of an Ending. Barnes, who had famously dismissed the Booker as “posh bingo”, was glad to accept it but admitted it didn’t change his view on the prize. It was Alan Hollinghurst (at 5/1), and not Barnes (at 6/1), who was the bookies’ favourite to win the prize when the longlist got announced, except the Hollinghurst book (The Stranger’s Child) didn’t even make the shortlist.

So while the bookies can get it wrong, I must say their overall track record is still impressive. In the last decade, the top bookmakers in London picked the winner successfully three times. About ninety per cent of the time, they managed to pick the frontrunner correctly. That’s a fairly good record. But what was the longest odds that ever won in Booker history? It was in 1985. Keri Hulme won with The Bone People and the odds for the book was placed at 50/1 (for every £1, you stand to win £50). For a kitty worth £50,000 for the winner, the punters winnings, in a way, trumped the show!

And what about the lows? We don’t have to look as far as the 80’s for that. It was only last year Jhumpa Lahiri’s book The Lowland set a new low in Booker betting record. A paltry sum of £24 was placed on her book! This year Neel Mukherjee, her fellow Bengali writer, is faring much better. His book The Lives of Others is actually the hot favourite for the bookies at 5/2. This year’s surprise omissions from the longlist were some big names: Ian McEwan, Donna Tartt, and Martin Amis. With the latter, though, I think the Booker has taken a vow never to invite him to the party (“a scandal”, says ex-judge John Sutherland, and “maybe because there is a feeling that he always looked towards America?”). Bookies have to factor in these into their calculations before setting the bets. Sometimes they get it wildly wrong, but as they say, the house always wins!

In the Guy Ritchie blockbuster, Snatch, an angry Cousin Avi described London to his fellow Yank: Yes, London. You know- fish, chips, cup o’ tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary fucking Poppins, London! Cousin Avi, I hasten to add, missed a few things that are part and parcel of the city: bookstores, pubs and last not least, the bookmakers. And all of them will be busy taking bets – in person, on the phone and online – right up to the announcement of this year’s winner, which takes place at a ceremony at London’s Guildhall on the 14th of October. And now I must be off—shhh! don’t you go talking too much about it now, but there’s certain odds and numbers I have to read again! London 24.ix.14

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