ZIMBABWE has just missed out on a famous Test cricket match win over Sri Lanka in heartbreaking fashion, and the dejection in the room among the punters is palpable.
By Enock Muchinjo
Cricket is not their favourite sport. Football is.
They had gotten hooked on this particular cricket match for two main reasons.
One, the overwhelming majority of them place bets only on football, their number one sport, but they also follow some of the other sporting disciplines with keen interest. They were well informed of the importance of this particular Test match: it would have been their country’s first away Test win against a big team in 18 years.
Secondly, one of the players in Zimbabwe’s cricket team is someone they know well around here at the Moors World of Sports betting shop in central Harare.
Peter Moor, PJ, to his family and friends, used to work here. He, however, left the family business, owned by his father, after the country’s cricket association offered him a professional playing contract a year ago.
Moor is now the Zimbabwe team’s wicketkeeper. At the time of writing, he had just returned home from the Sri Lanka tour, where Zimbabwe won a historic One-Day International (ODI) series before losing the Test match on the last day from the jaws of victory. He will probably drop by to say hello to old workmates and, as he used to do, have a friendly chat with punters.
The Moors World of Sports business, as has Zimbabwe’s gambling culture, has grown at a frightening rate in the last three years. The branch PJ used to work from, on Robin House alongside George Silundika Avenue in Harare, was among the very first.
Now, Moors World of Sports has seven branches in the capital city alone, and 21 it total across the country.
It is not the only betting company that has spread its tentacles across the country. The Moors, though, is one of the pioneers of modern-day betting in Zimbabwe. But there is a veil of secrecy here around topics like money, profits and remittance. No one wants to talk on record about how much the seemingly lucrative business is making, not least the employees and their managers. They clearly are sworn to confidentiality by the owners.
Of course, that does spark curiosity. To establish exactly how much the business makes, perhaps one just has to take a wild guess—using the wads of bank notes in cashiers’ tills as punter after punter goes forward with their money to place bets.
“The owners are making a lot of money, believe me,” says one the managers, offering information off-the-record.
“Right now its off-season in Europe’s major football leagues, so business isn’t at its peak. During the European season, at this (Moors) branch alone, punters bet for a total of US$10 000 to US$15 000 a day between the period from Thursday to Sunday. The pay-outs will roughly be between US$2 000 and US$4 000 a day.
“During the off-season, the branch rakes in between US$3 000 and US$5 000 a day and pay-outs are between US$1 000 and US$2 000.”
Pay-outs refer to the money punters make from their winning bets. This suggests huge profits for the betting business if you look at the amounts punters leave at the betting shops, and what they win as pay-outs. Occasionally, however, a very lucky punter wins big. On that occasion the betting shop can consider itself to have made a “loss”. But it is all part of the game.
Given the amounts punters devote every day, it is just a minor setback.
“Someone once won US$47 000 at this branch,” adds the manager. “It’s the biggest pay-out we’ve handled here.”
A chat with Peter Barr, chairman of Zimbabwe’s bookmakers’ association, proves the Moors manager’s insight to be quite credible. Peter Barr is a 78-year-old white Zimbabwean, still with a full head of hair. Friendly and cheerful, he has been in the gambling business for 40 years and knows the industry like the back of his hand.
Barr, who calls himself a “born bookmaker”, does not bet himself. Hanging on the wall of his tiny office, at one of his betting shops in Harare, is a picture of him shaking the hand of President Robert Mugabe at a horseracing event.
“He visited us at Borrowdale Race Course in 1999,” says Barr.
“We were launching the President’s Lottery Fund and he came to officiate.”
A horseracing and rugby fan, Barr owns the Soccer Shop, which itself has a wide range of nationwide outlets. “Since the advent of computer betting, interest in sports betting has grown immensely,” Barr says.
“Twenty years ago they would back one, two teams. Now they can take up to 20. Betting now offers various features: how many goals, what’s the score at half time, what’s the score at full time. It has added interest to the way betting was 20 years ago. Computerisation is the reason it (betting) has grown to such an extent. You can now put a dollar and win US$50 000.”
So people really win such amounts? “Yes, yes,” answers Barr. “One guy won US$35 000 here for the stake of 50 cents. Before, that never happened.”
Such pay-outs are not easy to clinch. One needs to be a genius of sorts in the area of gambling and sports knowledge. And one needs tonnes of luck. “That lucky punter took 12 teams,” explains Barr.
“Twelve real outsiders. Mark this one . . . 12 no-hopers! You have to know your stuff and some of the punters really know their stuff. They (punters) are working it out themselves. It’s their skill versus the betting shop’s skills. They are formulating their own skills. We are talking about 200 games across the world here.
“If you take a strong team you can’t win because the odds are less. The cleverer punter takes the hopeless. Say, Man U play second division Ayr United. Nothing can stop Ayr from winning, of course. The guy who takes a chance wins big.”
As expected and by nature, Barr isn’t eager to portray the picture of booming business.
“Expenses are very high,” he says.
“You are not going to make money just like that. You have to set up shop, buy things and spend a lot of money. The business is overtraded. There are too many shops. It’s not easy at all. A lot of people have gone out of business.”
Starting up a betting shop requires up to US$65 000 in operating capital, in addition to other costs. The industry has however closed opportunities to new players for the time being.
“You also pay US$20 000 to the bookmakers’ association against bad debts. You need a float too. A prospective bookmaker needs about US$65 000. But there are no more new licences for now. There are too many. The waiting list is too long. The influx of bookmakers has caused the national gaming board to put a ceiling on licences given out.”
The betting phenomenon in Zimbabwe is to be expected. Unemployment is at an all-time high and a vast majority of people are desperate. The urge for a quick dollar is therefore rife. The make-up of the betting population also tells a story.
“When I started in the ’70s, the type of people who betted was different,” says Barr.
“It was 60% white and 40% black. Now, I would say about 90% of punters are indigenous.”