Focus on Gambling
E L Figgis

Priced at three and six (approx £5.50 at today's value) this book was published in 1951, a time when precious few people owned a TV, there were no high street betting offices, no casinos or gaming clubs and the only opportunity to (legally) place a bet was either with an "on-course" bookmaker or the Tote at a horse or greyhound meeting, via a telephone account with a "Commission House" or by doing the "pools" - and endeavouring to pick eight score draws from the league football match fixtures scheduled for the following weekend. As such, I expected this book to be focussed on these opportunities and to provide some indicators to readers as to what to look for, and what to avoid, when putting their money on the line.

Perhaps the fact that Mr Figgis was an accountant by profession, and not a bookmaker, might have been an early clue as to the style and content? Eloquently written but somewhat dry, after examining some probability theory (some of which is pretty heavy - remember logs?) the content centres around the experiences of a group of fictitious people betting on the pools and playing bridge, poker and roulette at private gatherings before devoting a chapter each to horse racing and how bookies set their prices, how the Liverpool grain exchange functions, dog racing and the operation of the tote, permutations around doing the football pools and finally the law on gambling as it stood at the time of writing - which includes the proposals made by the 1950 Royal Commission on Gambling and the author's own views on these. The book concludes with a generous raft of appendices made up of many tables of data that relate to the earlier chapters.

It wouldn't surprise me too much to be told that the majority of people who bought this book were left somewhat disappointed with their purchase. There's little practical advice given for any of the punts covered; ie horse races with eight runners provide the best each way value, of taking advantage of the "en-prison" rule in roulette and betting high/low plus a street instead of two adjacent "dozens", of the odds of chasing straights and flushes in poker etc. As to the explanation of commodity trading processes I'm at a loss with this one, and can't see how any common or garden degenerate gambler of the time would have been in the slightest bit interested; I suspect this was included more due to the author's interest in it as an allied "risk" activity than because of any perceived interest amongst his potential readership?

Overall, although Focus on Gambling is an interesting trip back sixty years and contains some thought provoking numbers, it's not a read that got me excited - and I suspect this was the case with a lot of Mr F's readers. The main vein of advice running through the text is, I think, around making yourself aware of the commission, "cagnotte", overround, edge (whatever it might be called) on your particular gamble of choice. Quite right too. On page 38 there is an examination of the "Monte Carlo" staking system (which to me looks to be exactly the same as the "Labouchere") and applying it (and in reverse) to a succession of trials flipping a coin, heads or tails. Whilst I'm sure Mr F's mathematical observations are all correct, there's nothing here that flags up a health warning if applying it to a negative expectation game such as Roulette or Baccarat (or Chemin de Fer as was in those days) and the fact that it's possible to end up staking many times the original target return receives only a casual reference. On page 106 there's also a red flag raised around the application of negative progression staking plans on the GGs, and how these won't over the longer term out-run the bookies' overround. Personally I think he could have expanded these considerations to a dedicated chapter, which would have scored Focus on Gambling a couple more brownie points with yours truly.

So, not one that's going to remain on the bookshelf pending a re-read.

E L Figgis also published Challenge to Chance in 1957 (largely covering the same material) and Gamblers Handbook in 1976. He gave evidence to the Royal Commission on Gambling in 1978. He was born in 1910, and despite my not being able to find any record of his death being registered in the UK I think it's fair to assume that he's no longer with us.

September 2015.