01/08/2010 12:00AM

British books adapting to new math


NEW YORK - If you bet 50 pounds on a horse to win at odds of 8-13, how much would you get back if successful?

A question that has long plagued the customers of British bookmakers, it may soon become a problem of the past as the British betting industry begins implementing a major change in the way bets are made.

The Racing for Change movement that is striking fear in the hearts of traditionalists throughout the sceptred isle has proposed that bets be struck by bookmakers in decimals only, as opposed to arithmetically obscure prices like 4-7, 4-6, 8-11, and 15-8 that have been quoted for time immemorial. The bookies themselves have agreed to a trial period for the new equations in June, during which odds would be available in decimals, as they are on parimutuel systems throughout the world.

But the wheels of progress turn slowly in the nation that invented both horse racing and the betting ring. The trial period, which will surely not include Royal Ascot, will still offer the old system alongside the new system.

Betting in the ring was even more problematic before 1971, the year Britain discarded its old currency system in favor of a decimal system that had been one of the innovations of Britain's old French nemesis, Napoleon.

The old British money was a Byzantine system of pounds, shillings, pence, and farthings, interspersed with assorted crowns, half-crowns, sixpence, thruppences, tuppences, and ha'pennies. Britain didn't begin to modernize it until 1920, but when it went completely decimal, it encountered a good deal of criticism. Some people believed that the old currency had provided British children, and perhaps future bookmakers, with a built-in advantage in mathematics that would be lost to them under the decimal system.

They had a point. Imagine having to figure out how many shillings were in a pound (20), how many pence in a shilling (12), and how many farthings in a penny (four). In those days, if you had a fiver (a five-pound note), two one-pound coins, a 10-bob note, a crown, four shillings, a thruppence, and three ha'pennies in your pocket, you needed a calculator to figure out how much money you had.

Until recent times, when the pound became the basic unit of currency, most wagers were made in shillings or even in pence. Until World War II, five shillings were worth about one U.S. dollar, an amount that went a long way at the time. Bets as small as sixpence, for decades the equivalent of about 25 cents in American money, were commonplace.

Bookies always have to remain aware of how much money they are taking on each horse as well as the fluctuating odds of their colleagues. All of their calculations have to be made in their heads, and you never see a single one of them revert to a pocket calculator, an amazing feat given the strange odds they offer.

For centuries they priced horses at seemingly impossible odds like 2-9, 11-8 or the somewhat easier to understand 5-4 and 7-4, prices we have been seeing on the American parimutuel in recent years in the form of 1.25-1 and 1.75-1. Some of these prices were mirror reflections on either side of even money, or "evens" as it is called in Britain, for example, 9-4 and 4-9, 7-4 and 4-7, 11-8 and 8-11, 13-8 and 8-13. This may have been second nature to the bookies, but not to their customers.

Moreover, to this day bookies have disdained offering every single whole number in odds. For example, instead of going from 14-1 to 15-1, they jump from 14-1 to 16-1. The reason dates back to the 18th century, when most of their customers were wealthy aristocrats who bet in large denominations. Prices of 100-6 or 100-7 were used to accommodate wagers of 60 or 70 pounds. Through the years, 100-7 became 14-1 and 100-6 became 16-1, and so 15-1 is a price that will make its virtual debut in the ring in June.

When Britain did go decimal in 1971, when it was dictated that there would simply be 100 pence to the pound - no shillings, no tuppences, no farthings - bookmakers, had the opportunity to follow suit and simplify their system, but old ways die hard. There was a brief experiment with odds like 8-5 and 9-5, but with few exceptions bookies soon reverted to 13-8 and 15-8.

It wasn't until 1999 that on-course bookies were forced to switch to computerized systems. While this eliminated a lot of the required brainwork, much of the charm of the betting ring was lost. The multicolored pasteboard cards that bettors had received as receipts, which never included a single iota of information concerning the nature of the bet, save the name of the bookie and a reference number, became history. In their place bettors were handed a flimsy, cash-register-type receipt, albeit one that included a complete description of the wager.

But the new computerized system brought with it a more deleterious change. With computers to add up the breakage, bookies could change their prices more quickly to reflect the general betting, and so shopping for odds in the ring became more difficult. Before 1999 there were always a few bookies offering at least a point higher than the general price. That is no longer necessarily the case.

The new decimal system should ultimately work to the bookies' further advantage. They will surely see the benefit of offering 15-1 instead of 16-1, or 8-5 (1.60-1) instead of 13-8 (1.625-1).

Oh yes. The answer to the above question is 80 pounds, 75 pence. In future, 8-13 will surely shrink to 3-5 and a winning return will yield but 80 pounds. Anyone who answered the question correctly without the aid of a calculator should think about becoming a professional bookmaker. There's money in it.