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The manager stood up and started to unlock the door beside his counter. As soon as the latch was turned, Aarij pushed in. He grabbed Iacovou around the neck. The two men struggled. Aarij took a claw hammer from his bag and struck Iacovou over the head with it. He struck again, and again, and then he turned his attention to the safe.
It is a rare British high street that has not come to be kitted out, today, in the colours of the bookmakers. In every town, on every retail row, the routine sweep of bank and salon and shrunken supermarket will be studded at almost mathematical intervals by the red of a Ladbrokes storefront or the blue and yellow of a William Hill , likely as well by the blue of a Coral, the blue and red of a Betfred, the pale green of a Stan James or the clover-leaf shade of a Paddy Power.
In total, there are around 9, licensed betting shops in the UK, around half of those operated by Ladbrokes and William Hill. The two corporations are great and bitter rivals, tracing a contempt for one another back to the s. Difficult as it is to credit now, both companies once shared a snotty attitude about the idea of bookmakers having shops.
Up to the s it reckoned itself too posh for street-level trade. Bookmakers at the time operated under licence only at racetracks, or took bets from private customers by post or telephone. Profits made in this way were undermined by a thriving black market in illegal street betting.
Before the tonnes of lurid acrylic got hoisted into place on shop fronts nationwide, British bookmaking had as its most visible identifier a lone man or boy, waiting with a satchel of money on any street corner that had a choice of escape routes. Betting shops were legalised in All had windows that were blacked out, at government insistence, to discourage loitering. Cashiers took in money and sometimes gave it out. Customers could not drink in betting shops, but they could smoke.
These were bolt-holes, very often in the backstreets, stuffy but social, somewhere to be. And they were popular, particularly with working-class men. William Hill had shops by , and Ladbrokes more than His company was bought by Sears Holdings Limited in , and then traded on again through a number of conglomerates. They had 1, shops each, then 2, Instead of pencils came that icon of the modern betting shop, the complimentary pen: stubby, flat edged, much-chucked in frustration, apparently of limitless supply.
Regulation changes in the s allowed TVs to be installed in shops, bringing in races and results direct from horse and greyhound tracks. Cashiers, in the s, got networked computers. The major bookmakers also launched and invested in dotcom operations, but they were not especially light-footed about it, and their profits were eaten into by an online-only service named Betfair that empowered its customers to act as bookies themselves, setting odds and taking bets from one another.
Takings fell. Broadly speaking, there was less profit for bookmakers there: in football, unlike in a or rider horse race, only one side could fail to win. Takings fell further. FOBTs, when they came, were accepting of much larger sums than the fruit machines that preceded them. Losers lost faster, and losing became an identifiably scratchier thing.
Staff explained: the customer who backed a too-slow horse or a crap dog might afterwards rail at fate or the gods, or even the employees behind their counters. But they could not plausibly claim to have been cheated. Machine players brought with them a new paranoia. FOBTs are fixed, thus the name — fixed-odds betting terminals.
Over time they will pay back to customers Many shop workers I spoke to had stories about looking on, impotent, as the machines under their charge were angrily destroyed by the customers who had been playing them. Worse, somehow, was when a machine was calmly destroyed. According to figures I have seen, the number of incidents of damage to machines in Ladbrokes branches rose steadily between and And how many casinos, they asked, got by without bouncers to cope with aggrieved gamblers?
How many were run by individuals on their own? The policy meant that, subject to certain conditions, including a risk assessment of individual branches and a tick-box check of employee competence, shops could be run by one person for periods of the day and night.
In fact, in the majority of shops, there would be a mandatory number of hours during which there could only be one person rostered to work. People at all levels of the company told me they were in no doubt as to why it was introduced.
Ladbrokes said this was a result of cuts in staffing at all levels, not specifically on shop floors. At shop level, a choice: work on your own, or risk your job. At first, those who agreed to single-man were paid extra — something like an additional 40p an hour. The hourly pay for branch managers, who are known internally at Ladbrokes as customer service managers, varies by area and age. Internal Ladbrokes sources spoke candidly to me on the condition that I not use their names. So did most of the dozens of betting shop workers I consulted for this story.
Entering branches around the UK, and introducing myself as a reporter, I became used to a singular response: behind the counter their eyes would flick, instinctively, to the nearest CCTV camera. Employees said they feared the sack if they complained in public forums about their working conditions. A Ladbrokes employee in Birmingham reported the same.
Many of the part-time-working students and other junior staff I interviewed insisted they did not expect to be in their jobs for ever, that a pervasive industry gloom would soon flush them out — but that they needed good references, so could their names be left out of my story?
I met working parents, working parents-to-be, second-generation staff who worked in branches with their parents, and other employees who could not risk dismissal, so asked to speak anonymously. But they spoke. The area manager in the north recalled his shame at telling staff who were unnerved by single-manning in its early phase that they were really in no extra danger.
Persuading his staff became easier when other major betting chains started to single-man. Employees at Betfred, Stan James, Coral and Paddy Power told me they were all asked to work in their shops alone on a frequent basis. Andrew and Anita Iacovou first met inside a Ladbrokes. It was a Saturday in April , Grand National weekend. Anita had put an each-way bet on a horse called Party Politics. When her horse finished second, she took her ticket to Iacovou, who was working behind the counter.
They started talking. Iacovou was 37 and had grown up not far away, in South Norwood. His father was Greek and his mother English. Anita was 34, second-generation Indian, with dark hair that she tied back in a knot. Iacovou must have been distracted, chatting, because he shorted Anita on her winnings.
They married in and later had two sons. In , the family moved to a flat in Cheam. For five years, until , Iacovou worked at a Ladbrokes a walk away, on Tudor Drive. Then he was moved to the branch near Morden tube. But after a while, Punjabi recalled, Iacovou asked him not to bring the family on these trips, fearing they would be vulnerable in the car outside.
The sensation of safety is not a hard currency; it cannot be passed around in token form. The Morden Ladbrokes had CCTV cameras inside it, a steel-framed front door with a magnetic lock, a latch-lock on the door between the shop floor and the service area, and an employee panic button under the counter.
As dozens of shop employees pointed out to me, however, it is still possible to feel unsafe in the middle of a fortress like this, particularly at night, particularly when unaccompanied. The deputy manager of a Betfred in Sussex was working on her own when one night she was threatened with rape by a frustrated machine gambler.
For a while she took anti-anxiety medication, she said, to be able to keep working, and then she resigned. Certain branches in certain areas were from the start deemed too dangerous to be single-manned. Part of the way Ladbrokes decided this was by considering unpleasant incidents that had already taken place inside a shop.
It rated such incidents by degree. Suffer enough twos or threes and head office would take a shop off the single-manning list, at least for a short while. Anita worried for her husband. You did not have to search especially hard for stories about violence in British betting shops at the time. A machete robbery at a Betfred in Ashton-in-Makerfield in March A man who had entered a Ladbrokes in Southampton in April , and leapt over the counter with a kitchen knife.
Between them, the Iacovous had an arrangement: Andrew would call Anita from his shop, usually at about 8. On Saturday 25 May, Anita did not receive the expected call. She rang the shop and got no answer. She continued to call. Trying to work out what had happened later, police investigators rewatched CCTV footage recorded in the shop. They saw Shafique Aarij struggle with Iacovou behind the counter. This was at 8. They saw Aarij hit Iacovou with a hammer, multiple times. Blood spotted his face, and he wiped at it.
Within minutes of the attack Aarij had left the shop. Aarij must have taken this when he fled, at around 8. For between 45 minutes and an hour, nobody outside the Morden branch was aware that anything unusual had happened inside. Andrew Iacovou lay in such a way behind his counter that he could not be seen from the shop floor. Customers came and went. Someone played on one of the machines. Eventually Kistensamy, one of the regulars, approached the counter and saw a body. He ran to the supermarket next door and raised the alarm.
An ambulance came. Iacovou was pronounced dead by paramedics at From branch to branch, rumours of a murder spread. Staff at a William Hill in Glasgow heard that an employee had been stabbed. At a Coral in Hemel Hempstead it was said that someone had been shot.
Robbery gone wrong? Was he single-manning? This was one of their great fears. In the Facebook group, a discussion about possible strike action led nowhere. A hopeless, gravedigger humour set in instead. I was told by well-placed sources that this rumour was accurate. The operator also saw the cleaning materials that Iacovou had put out on his service area.
It was assumed that Aarij was a cleaner who must have pressed the panic button by mistake. In Cheam, Anita Iacovou heard nothing all morning. At 2pm, police visited her at the flat. Anita was asked to step in to her bedroom to speak with a policewoman. The two children were at home. Anita called them into the room to tell them what had happened.
There is not a lot more she can recall of the afternoon. She knows she turned to the two Ladbrokes representatives, in the family living room, and asked: why was he ever left there alone? When interviewed at Sutton police station, Aarij accepted that he had gone to the betting shop in Morden that morning to steal money. That he had armed himself with a hammer beforehand. That he knew there was likely to be only one person on duty. At trial in November he was found guilty.
In January he was sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum of 26 years. Ladbrokes paid a modest sum to Anita Iacovou and her family. Delicate mention was made of the murder. When a new branch opened in the Leicester area that year, it was added, like hundreds of others, to the list of Ladbrokes that could be run by one person.
In early , a woman in her 20s was interviewed for a job at the branch. During her interview, Miss X asked about the possibility of the shop being robbed. Really, though, nobody in the betting world can look forward to the spring, when chancellors generally shake down this industry with indecent rigour.
In a decade when the high street has come out strongly in favour of thrift and convenience, betting shops have clung on as an unlikely modern super-presence. Of course, they are not much use to the thrifty. If you mislay your little receipt, write it off. Who are all the shops for? Usually men. Their expressions often sullen.
Privately, informally, staff divide the modern class of betting-shop punter into two broad groups: the Older Gentlemen in for the horses and the Machine Gamblers. He just seemed to want a place to be, and often cleaned up the discarded betting slips to help out.
Bookmakers buy lots of television advertising time to promote gambling through their websites and mobile-phone apps, while their vast estates of retail outlets go just about unmentioned. Betting shops can seem marginal places today, even through the eyes of those who run them. Yet as pubs vanish, churches vanish, libraries vanish, the marginalised have not vanished.
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