The sporting life

That is why you don’t find flaky technology in a betting shop, when there are thousands of minimum-wage-earners who can do the job.

At 18, I got a job with Ladbrokes as a cashier at £1.92 an hour. After bus fare and tax, a day’s work could net me about £8. Luckily we weren’t allowed to put bets on.

Believe it or not, there are ways to run a betting organisation with even lower overheads. Internet betting is one, but who wants to place bets when there’s a computer handy?

Much better is a telephone-betting operation such as those already in Gibraltar using call centres and multilingual staff. But have you tried paying a Gibraltar-based speaker of Cantonese and English the minimum wage?

There’s a big incentive to get automated telephone betting to work. Not the application that says, ‘press one to bet your savings, two to bet money you can’t afford, three to bet money you’ll never earn’, but a computer that can understand what you’re saying.

Horse sense

Gambling’s a great case study in how complicated this can be. The IT system needs to recognise the horse, the meeting, the time and the stake, and not get them confused.

Then there’s the small problem of the number of different bets. If the customer wants a £1 each way Lucky 15 equally divided with £5 each on the win cross trebles, do you fancy creating the software that makes sense of it?

Don’t worry – Paul Magee, of Australia-based software vendor VeCommerce, already has. If you place a bet over the phone in Australia, the chances are you’ll talk to the VeCommerce automated operators, who use Nuance’s speech-recognition technology.

‘Our application has 245 different ways to put a bet on,’ he said. ‘In more than 96 per cent of calls, the bet is placed and no element of it has to be repeated. That compares with 87 per cent for a live operator.’

It is even more surprising because most people putting on a bet aren’t in a quiet office, they’re in pubs or in the street. And some of them have consumed alcohol.

Getting disputes taped

The system means the punter doesn’t have to wait. And it saves the bookie money, because the peaks in demand correspond to the 30 seconds before the day’s big race, and keeping enough agents is expensive.

The bookmaker loves it because when there is a dispute, it can simply play back the recording of the bet being placed.

In the first six months of operation, turnover from phone betting went up 12 per cent, costs went down 33 per cent, and 82 per cent of punters said they preferred the automated system.

A racing certainty

Now Magee wants to bring the product to Europe, which means starting again. We use the name of a horse, not the number. ‘This isn’t a boxed product,’ he said. ‘We don’t try to bend the punter to the system. We bend the system to the punter.’

It is going to take investment, but Magee always has the demonstration account that he uses to show punters how the system works to fall back on. He’s accumulated A$2600 (£954) tax-free. I’d have worked at Ladbrokes for months to take that home.

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