An interesting email dropped into my inbox at the end of last week and for a moment I thought I was dreaming. For years, the world of “courtsiding” at tennis matches has been something so secretive and closed off that even people like myself were not privvy to the information. We all knew courtsiding happened but how and to what sort of scale was it happening? Who were involved?
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However, it now looks like all this is set to be exposed with the release of a new book called “Game, Set & Cash: Inside the Secret World of International Tennis Trading” (Link opens in new window).
With courtsiding now becoming harder and harder there are many that are dropping out of the game and the “truth” was bound to come out sooner or later. I figured it might be later rather then sooner but I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.
Game, Set & Cash
The book itself is a well written good read and probably a fascinating one for anyone involved in Tennis Trading. I certainly enjoyed it but I assume it might be tricky to understand for someone who does not know Betfair.
It follows the author over his 2 years as a courtside trader and many of the challenges and successes over that time. The author travelled the world going from country to country following the tennis tour and was paid a salary of £40k plus travel expenses. Nice work if you can get it! The author was not alone and was actually part of a team that would arrive in the country and then split up to trade the seperate courts with many matches being played at the same time.
These guys were not operating solo but were employed by someone at the “backend” as it was described. The fact that a team of 3-4 were covering just one tournament, all expenses paid and on a £40k annual salary gives you just an inkling of how much money there was to be made during that time of courtsiding and how much the mastermind behind it all was making. Tickets for some of the grandslams cost up to €500 a time but were well worth it compared to the sums that could be made. The exact amounts per match or per tournament were never actually touched upon but one trader vaguely mentions to the author that the people on the backend were making “Millions, mate“, as he put it.
A chance meeting with an older trader who traded courtside during the golden era of 2006 when noone was aware of it claimed he used to make up to €30k per tournament.
Personally, I was very interested in just what technology was being used to trade courtside with.
In a way the book slightly disappointed on this as the device was only ever described as being a “phone” with software installed on it. Pressing one button would mean one player has scored and another button would mean the other player has scored. Perhaps that is actually all it was but I would have liked more detail into how the phone worked exactly. The author mentioned “pausing” his trading a few times which would suggest he had some sort of trading interface on his phone but there were not many other details. Although, it is clear that he was not managing bet sizes or exact odds from his end of it.
I was mildly amused to hear of one trader working with Nintendo Wii controllers in his pocket. Just how they did that is beyond me!
What you do learn about the technology is that speed is of the essence. There used to be a time when just making a phone call to someone who would then input the bets at home would be enough to get you ahead of the markets. However, with other courtsiders increasing their technology all the time it is getting tougher and tougher and it is literally mili-seconds that can make the difference between getting the good value bets or not. A tennis trader I know actually tried some courtsiding once with a laptop and wi-fi and he told me that even by the courtside he was not getting ahead of the markets. It was almost as if someone knew the future.
The one thing that did surprise me was how much the courtsiders were being pursued by the authorities. One of the main reasons they would have to arrive as a team was if one of them was caught they would be thrown out of the tournament and so another member of the team would have to cover the rest of it. There were some tournaments when the whole team would not even last till the 2nd day and the author speaks of “scouts” now being employed at various tennis tournaments to catch the courtsiders. He describes it as being “cat and mouse” and there are some amusing stories describing the lengths some had to go to in order to avoid the authorities. Including dressing up in a full wig and moustache disguise only!
There is a dark side to courtsiding though. Remarkably, there were some instances when he was caught and then treated like a criminal and threatened with being sent into police custody or worse. This was quite eye opening since courtsiding is not illegal and not actually harming anyone. Especially since the author and his team were not actually placing the bets but, rather, recording the scores with the bets being placed at the mysterious “backend”.
You do get the feeling that the Courtsiders were victims of the complexity of Betfair trading. The average person finds it hard to get their head around trading on Betfair so, to them, it must be “dodgy” in some way with its links to gambling. Perhaps, if they understood it more then it could be something they could work with. I am sure these tennis tournaments could make a lot more money if they offered dedicated boxes with wi-fi for these traders to trade with legally. If these traders were willing to pay €500 per ticket for just one match knowing they might still get thrown out then imagine the sums they would be willing to pay if they were guaranteed a box and to be able to trade in comfort. Most tennis tournaments actually have bookmakers as their sponsors so it quite ironic that they would frown upon gambling so much unless they are trying to protect their sponsors.
Sadly, I can not see that day coming anytime soon with courtsiding becoming so hard and risky that the author called time on it. His own picture was taken at many tournaments after being booted out and he eventually realised that these pictures were now being shared by security at other tournaments which just made his job even harder. There was one instance where he was thrown out before he even sat down to watch the match!
The author was also banned from Wimbledon, TWICE. This is a championship which has taken a strong stance on courtsiding in recent years. A spokesman for the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which hosts the Wimbledon tournament, cited another reason for its crackdown. “We take a view that courtsiding comes under anti-social behavior and is liable to be a nuisance to fellow spectators and therefore we have the right to remove perpetrators from the site,” he said. “To my knowledge we have done it on two occasions previously.”
Describing courtsiding as being a “nuisance” is odd in itself. The author describes how when he is trading he has to keep very quiet and concentrate on the match itself. He would keep conversations with strangers short but would applaud good points and act like a regular spectator as much as possible. Hardly sounds like a nuisance to me?
Overall, it is a great read with plenty of fun stories to keep you entertained. It does get a bit repetitive by the end of it with the drinking and partying after a weeks trading but this is a true story after all.
A must read for anyone with an interest in tennis trading that is for sure!
Game, Set & Cash is available on Amazon Kindle.
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