In the United Kingdom, the football pools, often referred to as "the pools", is a betting pool based on predicting the outcome of top-level association football matches taking place in the coming week. The pools are typically cheap to enter, with the potential to win a very large sum of money. Entries were traditionally submitted through the post or via collector agents, although it is now possible to play online. Agents would have a specific area in which they collected entries; traditionally, they were paid a set share of every ticket[clarification needed] they sold. The traditional and most popular game was the Treble Chance, now branded the Classic Pools game. Players pick 10, 11 or 12 football games from the weekend's fixtures to finish as a draw in which each team scores at least two goals. Players with the most accurate picks win the £3 million top prize, or a share of it. Players can win large cash prizes in a variety of other ways, under a points-based scoring system.
Littlewoods, Vernons and Zetters were the largest pools companies. Littlewoods was the first company to provide pools, selling them outside Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground in 1923. In 1986, a syndicate of players became the first winners of a prize over £1 million.
The pools business declined after the introduction of the National Lottery in 1994. Littlewoods, Vernons and Zetters were brought together in 2007 by Sportech under the brand 'The New Football Pools', now known as 'The Football Pools'. They offer other small stake, high prize games such as Premier 10 and Jackpot 12. The football pools companies have traditionally been charitable, donating over £1.1 billion to sports-related causes.
Several different companies,including the two largest Littlewoods and Vernons (both based in Liverpool), Zetters (of London), Copes (London), Shermans (Cardiff), Empire (Blackpool), Brittens (Leicester), and Soccer; have in the past organised similar games, the most famous of which was historically known as Treble Chance. Players were given a list of football matches set to take place over the coming week and attempted to pick a line of eight of them, whose results would be worth the most points by the scoring scheme; traditionally by crossing specific boxes on a printed coupon. A proportion of the players' combined entry fees was distributed as prizes among those whose entries were worth the highest scores.
In 2007, the Littlewoods, Vernons and Zetters companies came together to form The New Football Pools, now known as The Football Pools. The new company provides classic football pools games alongside other pools variants with coupons containing a smaller number of football matches. These games are all offered on-line.
Entries were traditionally made by post, or via agents or collectors who received a percentage (usually 12.5%) of the money as a fee. Main collectors, who appointed the agents, delivered the forms and payments to a regional office, which were then dispatched to the companies' central offices. Legally the football pools collectors were agents of the entrants, not the pools company. Business for pools collectors was sustained by periodic canvassing, where company agents knocked on doors in an area of a town or housing estate. Many large factories had at least one employee, who as a sideline, collected coupons from fellow workers.
Nowadays, a variety of football pools games can be played on the Internet. These include the classic pools game that traditionally includes a large number of fixtures, spanning the weekend. This is the same as the old 'Treble Chance' which has been renamed and rebranded under new ownership. New pools game variants include Jackpot 12, Premier 10 and Soccer 6; these are all games in which the player must correctly predict home win, draw or away win for twelve, ten and six (mainly Premier League) football matches.
These new pool games all offer large estimated pool sizes with low stakes; it is possible for people to win tens of thousands of pounds, staking as little as 50p.
Scoring schemes have varied over the years. The current Classic Pools game, based on the old Treble Chance game, uses a scoring scheme which awards three points to score draws (matches where both team scored the same, strictly positive, number of goals), two points to no-score draws (matches where neither team scored a goal) and one point to both home wins (matches where the home team scored more goals than the away team) and away wins (matches where the away team scored more goals than the home team). The most famous historical scoring scheme differentiated between home wins and away wins, awarding one and a half points for games resulting in away wins. A scoring scheme used for only one year, split score draws into two categories, awarding three points only for matches ending 1–1 and two and a half points for higher-scoring score draws.
The total score of each line would be calculated, up to a maximum of 24 points. The highest scoring line achieved by any player in that particular week's competition would be declared to be worth the top dividend, with a large proportion of the prize pool awarded to the players responsible for submitting the highest-scoring lines. Large football pools would award second and subsequent dividends, splitting smaller proportions of the prize pool among players who had submitted lines scoring nearly as many points; at its peak, the Littlewoods Treble Chance game would offer up to six dividends. During the Northern hemisphere summer, when football leagues were not in operation in the United Kingdom, competitions were based on the results of football matches taking place in Australia.
As well as this scoring system, the current Classic Pools game has an available top prize of £3 million; this is not based on who can get the most points, but is split between anybody who correctly guesses eight high-score draws (a draw of 2–2 or higher).
The other pools games currently provided by The Football Pools are based on entrants predicting the outcome; of results, scores and events in a variety of matches; rather than the awarding of points. Therefore, with the exception of the Premier 10 game (which pays out a smaller dividend for 9/10 correct as well as 10/10 correct), the other games can only be won if all predictions are correct – if they are not all correct then the prize money is rolled over.
The Pools Panel
Matches which were postponed would often have their results adjudicated, for the sake of the football pools results, by a board known as the Pools Panel; which was formed in 1963 when a particularly cold winter scrapped football for three weeks running. Initially, it had five members who changed weekly: early members were ex-footballers Ted Drake, Tom Finney, Tommy Lawton and George Young and ex-referee Arthur Edward Ellis.
By 1994, the panel members were Ellis, Gordon Banks, Roger Hunt, Tony Green and Maurice Peston, and the panel was meeting at the London Hilton on Park Lane. Other former members include Gerald Nabarro and Ronnie Simpson.
The panel meets in private session each Saturday from November to April. Its decisions are released once all ongoing matches have entered half time, but before any final results are known. By 2016, it had only three members, with Banks, Green and Hunt continuing to sit on the panel.
Until recently[when?], pools results were traditionally published in most national newspapers a day or two after the Saturday on which the matches were played. Grids marking the points totals per game were sometimes published, against which a pools coupon could be aligned to read off the scores.
The BBC television programme Grandstand used to broadcast the winning match numbers and any Pools Panel verdicts as part of its "Final Score" segment in the late afternoon. Only three people have so far announced the classified football results on the programme since its inception in 1958: Len Martin until his death in 1995 and since then, Tim Gudgin; Mark E. Smith, singer from the band The Fall, read out the classified football results on the BBC's Final Score programme as a one-off, as his band's track Theme from Sparta F.C. was the programme's theme music. Pools news was also given out on the BBC radio programme Sports Report until May 2007.
With scores being read out on radio and television it was also common to relay the message "claims by telegram" for days when around eight score-draws occurred (and thus few players expected to achieve maximum points), through "claims by registered mail only" for days when rather more winners were expected, to "no claims" when there were likely to be so many claimants that the mail would have been overwhelmed.
With the arrival of internet-based pools games, the need for players to score their own coupons was removed. Automatic scoring and payout is now standard on all internet-based pools games.
Typically a fraction of a penny would be charged for each line entered, though players often had the option to play each line at a higher stake and so receive a higher share of the pool should their line prove a winner. Accordingly, players would usually submit many different lines in a single entry. Popular ways to do this were "full perm" entries, where 10 (or 11, or more) matches were selected and every possible combination of eight matches selected from the total was entered as a single line. As there are C(10,8) = 45 ways to select eight matches from ten, the cost of such an entry was 45 times the cost of entering a single line. Note that the term "perm" was used despite the relevant mathematical operation being combination rather than permutation, as the order in which the eight matches were selected was irrelevant. The pools companies, many daily newspapers and the sporting press also issued "plans", which were subsets of full perms: these enabled the punter to cover more matches for the same stake, with the proviso that even if eight draws were in the selections, they might not all be in a single line of the plan (but well designed plans could give a guarantee, such as 'if the plan hits eight draws it must win at least a 3rd dividend').
The largest prizes would be awarded when only one line was entered scoring the maximum number of points; typically this would occur when only eight or nine matches ended in score draws, so only one player would have the line scoring the maximum. These biggest jackpot prizes could be several hundred thousand pounds, sometimes even more than a million. Prizes depended on the number of players and the cost per line, which varied between pools companies and increased over the years; one winner, Viv Nicholson, gained notoriety by declaring she was going to "spend, spend, spend" after winning £152,319 in 1961. The story of her subsequent extravagance and eventual bankruptcy was eventually made into a musical named after her assertion.
At the other extreme, payouts of less than a pound were quite common, as lower dividends when many entries won. Most players could expect to receive at least one low payout if they played for long enough.
In its current form, the 'Classic Pools' game has a top prize of £3 million, separate to the pool prize that is given to the highest point scorer(s). In order to secure this £3 million prize, or a share of it, the punter must successfully guess eight or more high-score draws (draws of 2–2 or higher). This has been won on a number of occasions; in 2010 this was won by a single winner, who received a life-changing payout of £3,001,511.
With the arrival of the latest online pools games such as Premier 10 and Super 6, the overall pool size is less than the classic pools game, but the odds of winning a major prize are increased because fewer predictions are required to complete a coupon and, also, fewer individuals play each coupon.
Some notable UK football pools winners:
- 1957 – Nellie McGrail, Stockport – £205,235
- 1961 – Viv Nicholson, Castleford – £152,319
- 1972 – Cyril Grimes, Liss, Hampshire £512,683 – first win over £500,000
- 1979 – Irene Powell, Port Talbot – £882,000 – first win over £750,000
- 1986 – a syndicate of hospital workers from Devizes – £1,017,890 – first million-pound win
- 1987 – Barry Dinsdale, Kingston upon Hull – £1,910,972
- 1991 – Rodi Woodcock, £2,072,220 – first double-millionaire
- 1993 – Judy Smith, Isle of Portland – £2,077,683.60 – highest UK win at that time
- 1994 – a syndicate from Worsley £2,924,622 won on the inaugural weekend of the National Lottery
- 2010 – 14 players shared £3 million and one Zetters player scooped £1 million
- 2010 – Michael Elliott, Brechin – £3,001,511 – the highest-ever jackpot, won by betting on eight 2–2 draws across Spain, Scotland and England
- 2011 – four winners won £3 million split four ways, each winner receiving £750,000
Competitions for predicting the results of football matches are older than the football league itself. For example, the Cricket and Football Field newspaper, in its edition of September 10th, 1887, offered a prize of one guinea to "the Competitor who predicts the results" of four football matches to be played the following Saturday. Readers were invited to cut out and fill in a coupon printed in the newspaper, which had to be sent to the newspaper's offices by the Friday before the matches. If more than one "Couponnier" predicted all four exact scores correctly, the prize would be shared between them. There was no charge for entry beyond postage; in fact readers were allowed to submit multiple "coupons" together, presumably in order to encourage them to purchase multiple copies of the newspaper.
Littlewoods football pools was founded in 1923 by John Moores. The first football pools coupons were distributed to football fans outside Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground in 1923. Vernons was founded in 1925, Zetters in 1933, and Brittens in 1946. There was also Sherman's Pools of Cardiff, taken over by Littlewoods in 1961.
The Treble Chance game was inaugurated in 1946; prior to this the Penny Points and Penny Results were the most popular games. The Treble Chance was popular because it offered a potential large jackpot at a time when no other form of gambling in the United Kingdom did; premium bonds were not offered until 1957 and never offered a jackpot which was as high. The popularity of football pools in the UK declined dramatically after the introduction of the National Lottery in 1994, which offered larger jackpots. Some pools offer additional ways to win, based on scores of football matches at half-time, or football matches in which a particular number of goals is scored.
The football pools did not fall under gambling legislation (specifically the Betting and Gaming Act 1960 and its predecessors) because they claimed to be competitions of skill, rather than chance; however, their rules typically stated that all transactions were "binding in honour only". Typically, between one-quarter and half of the entry fees taken would be returned to the players as prizes. Companies organising football pools were heavily taxed; in 1991 the tax was reduced from 40% of turnover to 37½% of turnover.
Additionally, from 1975 on, 2½% of the entry fees went to form the Football Trust which distributed money to football throughout the UK, in particular to help clubs redevelop their stadiums in line with the recommendations made by the Taylor Report.
Competition from the National Lottery led to a rapid fall-off in players, from a peak of 10 million in 1994 to 700,000 in 2007. Vernons closed its pools operation in February 1998, and ran a lucky-dip game called Easy Play with the National Lottery during the 1998–9 football season. It resumed its traditional business afterwards.
In 2000, Littlewoods Pools was sold for £161 million. The company became part of Littlewoods Gaming, a division of Sportech plc. Sportech bought Zetters in 2002 and Vernons in 2007, and announced plans to rebrand the competition as The New Football Pools, launching online at footballpools.com during summer 2008. This was then later rebranded to 'The Football Pools'. Sportech sold the business to private equity firm OpCapita in 2017.
The Littlewoods Football Pools Collection which records the history of the pools is held by the National Football Museum.
Other games offered by football pools companies take the form of "8 homes", "4 draws", "5 aways" or the like, where lines consisting of a smaller number of matches are selected and a line is deemed to have won if all the selected matches result in home wins, away wins or draws (irrelevant of the size of the draw) respectively. The cost per line is generally higher; because these attract far fewer players, prizes are generally lower. Some football pools companies additionally organised lotteries, betting on lottery results or spot the ball competitions at various points.
In predicting "Homes and Aways", players typically mark more than, for example, 8 homes (they might mark 13) and thus their stake increases by the mathematics of combinations. Each line is called a "perm" ("permutation") even though it is actually a mathematical combination not a permutation. It is also possible to reduce the number of "perms" by taking the most likely and marking them as "bankers" i.e. that they appear on every combination.
The Football Pools have donated over £1.1 billion to sporting-related causes. During the 2009/10 football season a further £6 million was donated to football initiatives including the following
- The Every Player Counts scheme – to grow disability football provision across 44 Football League clubs in England and Wales and increase the opportunities for people with varying disabilities to access sports through their local Football Clubs
- The Premier League Health scheme – to help tackle a range of men’s health issues including testicular cancer, depression and alcoholism
- The Fit for Football, Fit for Life scheme – to help tackle serious health issues for young people across 30 Scottish Football League clubs
Continental European pools
Similar football pools competitions are frequently known as toto competitions on Continental Europe. While the principle of requiring entrants to predict the results of football matches in advance remains the same, the details are fundamentally different. The name toto derives from totalisator machines which are used to process the parimutuel betting involved.
Typically, a list of 13 matches for the coming week will be given. Pools entrants have to select the result of each one, whether it will be a home win, an away win or neither of these, typically by marking each match with either a 1, a 2 or an N (sometimes X or 0). It is possible to enter two or three results for one or more matches, in which case the entry is treated as a number of separate entries for all possible combinations given; marking two possible results for each of five matches and all three possible results for each of four matches will result in submitting 2 × 2 × 2 × 2 × 2 × 3 × 3 × 3 × 3 = 32 × 81 = 2592 different entries. All entries submitting 13 correct predictions will be declared to have won the top prize; sometimes, prizes for fewer correct predictions are also awarded.
The Intertoto Cup football competition was inaugurated by the football pools companies of central Europe to provide matches for their toto coupons during the summer months.
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