Odds Compilers 1
SUN-TZU, the ancient chinese warrior, said in his epic work The Art Of War: "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles."
For punters, the enemy are the odds-compilers, so to avoid fearing your next hundred wagers, it is useful to know who you are up against.
Do these men know more than we do? Do they eat, breathe and sleep football? Are they armed with ultra-sophisticated computer programmes that help them to generate faultless prices that give punters no edge? Or do they just pick up a fixture list, spend a minute or two on each game and hope they have got their prices accurate enough to avoid a complete disaster for the firms that employ them?
Sorry to disappoint anyone who might hope the odds are hastily thrown together and that anyone out there with a few hours to spare can spot scores of mistakes on a single coupon, but, yes, sports odds-compilers are indeed a diligent and conscientious breed who leave no stone unturned in their efforts to make life as hard as possible for those who punt on their prices.
Ask people whose opinion on British football counts for most and the majority will probably reply Alan Hansen or Andy Gray. But with all due respect to those shrewd and erudite Scotsmen, their views are less important than those of the average odds-compiler.
A TV pundit can get something hopelessly wrong - didn't Hansen once say that you win nothing with kids just as the Manchester United team of the youthful Giggs, Scholes, Butt, Beckham and Nevilles embarked on a successful Championship campaign? - and the only consequence is that he might lose a bit of face.
If a compiler gets something hopelessly wrong, ruthless punters pounce and the guilty man's employers are liable to get irate.
When it comes to putting your money where your mouth is, nobody does it with a greater degree of risk than a compiler, especially a football compiler.
Given the enormous volume of matches that the leading bookmakers price up every week, the scope for errors is obvious. Punters can choose whether or not to bet on a match. Oddsmakers, 99 per cent of the time, do not have that luxury.
One of the foremost practitioners of the art is Steve Andrews, who is senior sports odds-compiler for Coral.
He has been with the firm at their Barking, Essex, headquarters since 1985 and has witnessed at first hand the spectacular growth of the sports betting sector of the business.
Some oddsmakers prefer to operate in complete anonymity, but Andrews, while in no way a publicity-seeker, is always available to give the bookmakers' side of things. And now, with the following account of a week in his life, he offers a fascinating insight into how football prices are compiled and traded, where he feels his company is most vulnerable and what makes a successful oddsmaker.