Long before there was a National Lottery, or instant-win scratchcards, in Britain we had the Football Pools. This was a weekly gamble on the results of football matches played all over the country, and the companies involved employed door-to-door collectors.
They would come at the same time in the evening, on the same day each week. After taking your completed Pools Form and the stake money, they would hand you a new form for next week’s matches. They always wished you ‘good luck’ as they left, as it was not unknown for any lucky winner to tip their collector handsomely.
I started ‘doing the pools’ as it was known, quite late in life. I was already married, and attracted by the increase in jackpot prizes that had been widely publicised. For a modest outlay, I had the chance of winning hundreds of thousands of pounds. Considering a very nice house in Wimbledon had just cost us only £27,000, a prize approaching £500,000 was a life-changing amount.
This was no random gamble in the form of a lucky dip, or selection of numbers. It involved betting on which teams were more likely to win or draw, and whether they were playing at their home ground, or away. Not an easy job for me, as I had not been a football fan since I was eleven years old. However, I did buy newspapers, and could read about the current performance of football teams in the sports section.
In fact, the Pools was so widely played, newspapers would also supply ‘pools forecasts’ to help people filling out their pools forms, which were actually called (for some unknown reason) ‘coupons’. Big winners would often attract publicity, mostly bad, about how they had wasted their winnings. But there was a box to tick for ‘No publicity’. I always ticked that box, just in case.
My preferred option was called ‘Three Eight From Tens’. You had to pick eight score draws from ten matches played, and I played three lines of that, using different teams on each line. On Sundays, I would check in the back of my newspaper after it had been delivered, to see if any of my lines had won.
Sometimes there were small prizes, based on how many others had picked the same results, but it was the winner of the huge jackpot that we all dreamed of becoming. The only person in Britain to pick the eight score draws from just ten games.
For a long time, nothing happened. Then one day it did.
I had eight score draws on one line. I checked it at least a dozen times, and it was true. My heart was beating fast, and yet I was sure there would be some mistake. There was a number to telephone if you thought you had won, and I dialled it with trembling fingers. I used Littlewoods, the biggest of the pools companies, and I got through to a nice lady at their headquarters in Liverpool.
She checked my numbers, and confirmed that I did indeed have eight score draws, and should win a ‘substantial’ prize. I left my details, and she agreed that I had ticked ‘No Publicity’, so would be sent a cheque with my winnings. She was unable to tell me the full amount, as it was too early to have vetted any other claims.
To say I was excited would be an understatement. I telephoned some of my closest friends, and arranged to meet them at lunchtime in a south London pub. My (first) wife and I drove over there just after midday, and I told everyone the great news. I was free with the drinks, and wondering what I was going to spend that small fortune on.
We discussed buying houses for friends and relatives, exotic holidays, new cars, even giving up work and living abroad. And I was only thirty years old.
When the letter came a few days later, I could see the company name printed on the envelope, and almost ripped the cheque in my excitement to tear it open.
Despite looking at the numbers and typed figures at least fifty times, I had to face the disappointment. It was just £410. The accompanying letter informed me that it would have been £410,000, but almost 1,000 other people had also guessed the same eight score draws that week. Okay, £410 was over a month’s salary for me at the time, but it took a very long while for me to shake off the disappointment of not winning the jackpot.
In 1986, The Pools paid out its first £1,000,000 prize. By then, I had long stopped bothering to play. I reasoned I had missed my chance, and that pools numbers, like lightning, don’t strike twice in the same place.
Littlewoods is still running Footballs Pools to this day, though since the National Lottery began in 1994, hardly anyone ‘does the pools’ anymore.