Britons, it appears, will bet on anything, from whether it'll snow on Christmas to the outcome of the American presidential election, to not only whether Kate Winslet would win an Oscar this year, but also whether she'd cry during her acceptance speech (odds were 8 to 15 that she would).
The gambling industry in the UK is massive: According to the UK Gambling Commission, gambling operations turned over Â£84.2 billion in 2006 to 2007. Gross gambling yield (that is, what operators make after paying out, but before deducting operational costs) was estimated at roughly Â£9.9 billion during that same time period. More than 3400 betting and gambling operators are licensed by the Commission and it shows "“ in virtually every town center, there is an off-track betting storefront, including the appropriately named Ladbrokes.
And they are busy. A 2007 Gambling Commission report also found that around 68 percent of the adult population of Britain reported participating in some form of gambling in the past year, including people who had only participated in the National Lottery Draw. Among the most popular forms of gambling, after the National Lottery, were betting on horse races and playing the slot machines. (The study also found that only about 0.6 percent of the population could be considered problem gamblers.)
Off-track and off-course gambling "“ the kinds of places that take bets and fix odds on things like Kate Winslet's tears "“ has only been allowed since 1961, when British government essentially legalized all of the already existing illegal bookmaking shops operating around the country. But well before that, Britons were betting on virtually anything that moved: In the 19th century, for example, young men of leisure would bet which drop of water on a window would reach the bottom the fastest.
And that barely scrapes the surface of the weird and wonderful bets British people have made "“ here are few of the strangest, most outrageous bets to come out of Britain in the last few hundred years:
A popular betting game for charity functions and school field days is something called called Ferret Bingo. And it really couldn't be simpler: A ferret is placed in a specially made cage that features seven numbered exit tubes. Players bet on from which tube the ferret will emerge. But really, when ferrets are involved, everybody wins.
London resident Matthew Dumbrell took 1,000,000 to 1 odds that the world would end before the end of the year 2000 "“ begging the question, how would he collect his winnings?
In 1964, the prescient David Threlfall put Â£10 on 1000 to 1 odds with bet makers William Hill that a man would walk on the moon before January 1, 1970. Threlfall won, of course (surely angering those who think the whole lunar landing thing was a sham), but sadly lived only long enough to spend his winnings on a new sports car and crash it.
In perhaps the most audacious bet ever, in 2004, professional gambler Ashley Revell, 32, of Kent sold all of his worldly possessions and skipped off to Vegas with $135,000 in his pocket "“ where he sidled up to the roulette wheel and put the lot on red. The wheel hit a red 7, Revell doubled his money "“ and probably breathed a huge sigh of relief. According to the BBC, he described his all-or-nothing, black-or-red bet as the "purest bet you can do," before adding, "I'm not married and I haven't got kids. It's almost like my last chance to go mad."
However, Revell wasn't the first man to try his luck in one go on the roulette wheel: According to the BBC, in January 1994, a punter (as they call the betting folks over here) from High Wycombe sold his home for Â£147,000, flew to Las Vegas without telling anyone, and placed it all on red. He won.
In 1907, John Pierpoint Morgan and Hugh Cecil Lowther Lonsdale, the Fifth Earl of Lonsdale, were dining at the National Sporting Club of London, when Morgan made the claim that no man could walk around the world and not be recognized. Lonsdale disagreed "“ and so was born one of the strangest bets in history.
According to lore, man about town and consummate showman Harry Bensley heard about the bet and decided to take it on, for the princely sum of Â£21,000 ($100,000 then). By the start of 1908, the bet had changed. The wager allegedly stipulated that Bensley would walk around the world with only one set of underwear, pushing a pram, and wearing a metal helmet. Along the way, he was supposed to find a wife, never reveal his identity, and, in order to finance the journey, sell postcards of himself in his suit of armor. Huge crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square on New Year's Day, 1908, to cheer Bensley on his way, as he shuffled out of town pushing his pram and wearing his visored metal mask. A few stories of his exploits trickled back: He was arrested in Bexleyheath, southwest London, for selling postcards without a license. The local magistrate there, however, respecting the rules of the bet, allowed Bensley to be tried as "the man in the iron mask" and he got off with a fine. But after that, little of the man in the iron mask and his adventures made the news.
Bensley returned to England after six years and, he said, making it mostly around the world, hitting Ireland, Canada, America, Japan, China, India, Turkey, Italy. It was only the start of World War I that stopped him, forcing him to return to England. Morgan, he said, had abandoned the bet because of the outbreak of war, and had awarded him Â£4000 for his troubles.
It's a good story "“ but is it true? There is no evidence that Bensley ever actually left England, despite his claims, and even now, his family wonders if the tale was anything more than fancy.
In 2005, a 91-year-old former solicitor from Devon placed Â£500 on 6-to-1 odds that he would be dead by the end of the year. Arthur King-Robinson's morbid wager, which was accepted by bookmaker William Hill, was an effort to sidestep a Â£3000 inheritance tax that his estate would have been liable for should he have died by December 6, 2005. Luckily, King-Robinson didn't die, the death tax was avoided, and the bookmaker took home Â£500.
Horatio Bottomley, a Liberal MP who was also a less than honest businessman, had the perfect scheme for fixing a horse race. In 1914, Bottomley bought all six horses running in a particular race in Belgium, then bribed the jockeys to finish in a certain order and placed massive bets on the race. Fool proof, right? Not so much. The racecourse was a seaside track and the day of the race proved exceptionally foggy: Not only could the jockeys not work out who was where, but neither could the judges. Bottomley lost a vast amount of money on the race.
Before off-track betting was legalized, many of these kinds of weird wagers were made within in the confines of gentlemen's clubs (not those kinds of gentlemen's clubs). Whites, which at more than 300 years old is one of London's oldest such clubs, kept records of colorful wagers made by club members. Some are morbid: In 1817, Whites' ledgers reveal, one member bet 10 guineas that six other Whites patrons would die within a year. Others were a bit whimsical: In 1812, the record shows that one Mr. Talbot bet Sir J. Copley five guineas that "he does not make a bet with him during the next three years." Still others concerned matters of state: A Mr. Bouverie bet Lord Yarmouth Â£150 that the Duke Clarence, who would become King William IV, would sire no legitimate children in the next two years. And some were just crass: In 1819, "Mr. Raikes bets Mr. Greveill one guinea the Empress Marie Louise is in Paris before Emperor Napoleon is in her person."
Honorable mention goes to professional gambler Brian Zembic, a Canadian, who in 1998 accepted a $100,000 bet to get and live with breast implants for a year. The weird part? He still has them.
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What's the weirdest thing you've ever bet on?