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The day the red flag went up

Betfair's 'fraud team' could quickly see that the betting pattern was strange for the Davydenko-Arguello match at an obscure men's tennis tournament in Poland

August 12, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

LONDON -- On Aug. 2, as the world all but yawned over a drab second-round match in a fourth-tier tennis tournament along the Polish coast of the Baltic Sea, a single roomful of people in Hammersmith, West London grew rapt and concerned.

Odd, because this room normally appears so very blase-financial-firm. With its blue industrial carpeting, open-air desks, up-to-date computers, wall plasma TV screens and benevolently large windows, you'd never guess it would take frenetic interest in a match involving No. 4-ranked Nikolay Davydenko of Russia and No. 87-ranked Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina.

Yet this plebeian tennis match set the room abuzz with "discussion within the team as the match was being monitored visually," Sandra Barton-Nicol said.

In the room, it turns out, toil 40 people with 40 unusual jobs. They're the "fraud team" and the "integrity team" of the Internet gambling colossus Betfair, which handles more daily trades than the New York Stock Exchange. Barton-Nicol heads the Risk Investigations department, and the specialists who undergo three months of training and spend eight-hour shifts scrutinizing wagering patterns had detected something with Davydenko-Arguello that qualified as, to use a popular British word, dodgy.

"If they suspect something, they go in with all their toys and look closer," said Robin Marks, a spokesman for Betfair.

Their "toys" include software that allows Betfair to track every bet by every wagerer, even given the three billion hits, five million bets and one million account holders from the last year. If a wagerer bets only on soccer but suddenly turns to tennis, it shows. With the Davydenko-Arguello match at the Orange Prokom Open in Sopot, Poland, though, they didn't need to track any individual.

They just followed the galloping money total.

Even before the match began, the total wagered started mushrooming and tilting away from the logical favorite toward the underdog "without a ball being hit," Marks said. "Straightaway, clearly, that shouldn't happen." Bettors, he pointed out, "haven't got anything to base that on."

It deteriorated from there. In a country in which bettors can wager on sporting events in progress, the money continued sliding toward Arguello even after Davydenko decisively won the first set, 6-2. The No. 87 player began to resemble the No. 4 player -- and vice versa -- on the Betfair website, which takes wagers both on athletes to win and to lose.

Where that morning a $2 bet on Davydenko to win might have fetched a bettor an extra 51 cents and a $2 bet on Arguello to win might have fetched about $6.10, those numbers pretty much switched places, illogically. "Davydenko's halfway to winning the match," Marks said, "but his odds are totally back-to-front. That was a defining moment, if you need a defining moment in the market."

By definition's end, a wee second-round match in an obscure ATP tournament had vacuumed in 3.59 million pounds, or roughly $7,304,210, roughly 10 times the average for a similar match.

That's why a room of employees who can spend months of routine days checking for irregularities had come upon a day most irregular.

That's when Betfair phoned the ATP, one of 27 sporting bodies with which it has agreements. And that's when the Betfair teams began studying the various screens with unusual vigor.

Over the next hour or so, Davydenko dropped the second set, 3-6, an unlikelihood bettors seemed to foretell. By the time he retired because of a foot injury, while leading, 2-1, in the third set, the Betfair workers were immersed in investigation.

"By the time it ended," Marks said, "everybody would have started investigating the match."

The next day, Betfair took the unprecedented step of voiding all the bets on the match, Davydenko denied any involvement, and the ATP indicated it too would investigate.

Although Betfair has tracked the origin of the bloated online bets, Marks declined to disclose the countries involved.

It all flung new attention on tennis and on Betfair, a mere cub at 7 years old, yet already the world's largest gambling broker online, a vein of sports betting that is illegal in the United States.

Several British gambling experts interviewed for this story said that among sports, tennis by its very nature ranks high in susceptibility to rumors and corruption. They say it's common sense.

For example, where soccer has 22 participants in a given match, any of whom might affect an outcome only marginally, singles tennis, like boxing, has only two. Golf may involve sole contestants, but its long odds on a variety of participants can make it a scary premise for somebody wishing to lay some odds even with so-called inside information.

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