Hitting the books in London


LONDON - I am complete.

I met a London mush.

It was at the Coral betting shop near London Bridge on Tuesday morning, one of 1,600 run by the company across the United Kingdom and one of more than 9,000 books in the country. I was inquiring about the odds on boxer Michael Hunter of Las Vegas, who opens his Olympics heavyweight tournament today against Artur Beterbiev of Russia. I was told Hunter is 28-1 to win the gold medal.

“Do you have research?” a young man standing nearby inquired.

Research?

“Inside information?”

“I have nothing,” I told the him. “Back in the States, I’m known as a mush. I can’t win a bet to save my life.”

“Me too,” he said.

Then he cashed a ticket … for 60 pence. A man after my own empty wallet.

The Olympics have only intensified a local hunger to wager on sports here, a passion so deep that a leading tabloid this week sent underage kids into 12 books and they were allowed to make bets in half of them.

Which isn’t all that surprising, given I believe you only have to be as tall as the bar to be served in the pubs.

Paddy Power has a book three doors up from Coral. William Hill has one a block from there. It’s like the Starbucks craze back home. There’s a betting shop every 100 yards.

Sports book officials believe this summer will mean $7.7 billion to the industry here, which is a whole lot of Ukranian weight-lifters and Chinese divers being bet on.

Conal is the pleasant book manager. Conal from Coral. Go figure.

He led me through a few differences between making bets here and, say, at the Las Vegas Hilton. The first is fairly obvious: There are no electronic slips at Coral. You write a bet down on a piece of paper, the manager signs it and hands it back to you.

You can bet on whether Barack Obama will be re-elected in November, and with some of Mitt Romney’s comments/gaffes during his recent stay here, the sitting president is about to be favored more than the Swedish handball team. I took England to pull the upset at 20-1 on Tuesday. The Swedes won 41-19.

“I’ve never even heard of handball,” Conal said as he took my bet on his obviously inferior countrymen.

I informed him that America had heard of it. We just stink at it.

You can bet the Packers at 11-2 to win the Super Bowl and the Patriots at 7-1 and the Jaguars at 100-1. The Cowboys are 22-1. I’m sort of feeling that one.

You can bet anything imaginable with it comes to their kind of football. Soccer and the ponies dominate the action. “We get (action) on the NFL,” Conal said. “We had one American living here a few years ago who bet big money on it each week. He doesn’t come in any more. He didn’t win much at all.”

Which is one of the similarities between here and home.

Conal just returned from a vacation to Las Vegas, where he took in a Garth Brooks concert and happened past enough sports books to realize he wouldn’t make any bets.

“All I saw was baseball,” he said. “I know nothing about the sport. Your city is bloody hot, isn’t it? It seems there are more people on the streets asking for drugs than the last time I was there.”

Conal, we can only hope, wasn’t interviewed by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority for any future brochures.

I decided to make one more play before departing and profiled the heck out of it by choosing Liu Hong at 10-1 in women’s race walking. I’ve been to China. Massive place. I figure if Liu has walked just a small portion of the 9.6 million square kilometers spread out over the East Asian state, she’s terrific value to upset that gargantuan of a race walking champion, Ulga Kaniskina of Russia. The local mush had a final question for the manager.

“What do you have on the teenage Chinese swimmer tonight,” referring to 16-year old Ye Shiwen, whose dominant times here have raised charges of doping.

“Not sure,” Conal said. “She’s a bit dodgy, eh? Must be something in the water.”

The mush passed on betting Ye. She won again.

I guess not much is different here, after all.