Inside Starlizard: The story of Britain's most successful gambler and the secretive company that helps him win
Camden, North London. It's 12:45 p.m. on a Saturday, and the punks, tattoo artists, and tourists are gearing up for another day of drinking and shopping in the area's famous tunnels, warehouses, and bridges.
But the offices at the Iceworks building, overlooking the canal, are filled with smart young professionals. It might be the weekend for the rest of us, but for these workers it is the equivalent of Monday morning, the busiest day of the week, and the opening bell on their market is about to ring.
They have a huge sum of money on the line because they are in charge of the biggest gambling syndicate in Britain, believed to make up to £100 million, or $145 million, in a good year.
A mixture of men and women — mainly men — ages 25 to 45 gather around the TV screens dotted around the Camden office, some displays mounted on walls and others at desks. All are tuned to the weekend's football.
The first Premier League match of the weekend is about to begin. And with it, a weekly multimillion-pound gambling bonanza kicks off too. Their company can have £1 million riding on the outcome of a single match and more on the nine others that will follow in the next 24 hours.
But this isn't a bookmaker. It is Starlizard, a company that treats gambling the way hedge funds treat stocks. Officially, it describes itself as a betting consultancy that uses complex statistical models to generate football odds that are sharper than those offered by professional bookmakers. These are then sold to clients to help them beat the market. The company thus acts more like a betting adviser than a bookmaker — it doesn't actually take bets.
But the highly secretive company also masterminds one of the most successful professional gambling syndicates in the world, placing hundreds of millions of pounds worth of bets each year on behalf of high-roller clients.
Football is its biggest business, and if the goals don't go the way Starlizard's models predict, then people will lose a lot of money.
The bulk of the money Starlizard bets comes from Tony "The Lizard" Bloom, a maths whiz who earned his nickname for his cold-blooded decision-making at the poker table.
Bloom, a veteran gambler who owns Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club, made millions setting up an online bookmaker and poker websites in the 2000s, and his net worth — which is a mystery — is estimated by some to run into the billions.
Bloom set up Starlizard to run his sports activities, and the business allows him to bring the cool heads and statistical rigour of Mayfair's boutique quant investment world into the murky arena of Asian bookmakers. He told one interviewer, "I wanted to gamble because I enjoyed it and, therefore, I needed to do it properly in order to win."
Starlizard workers are invited to share in Bloom's winnings. They are offered a free stake in Bloom's syndicate, putting them in line for payouts of up to £500,000 every six months — assuming the match results go Bloom's way, of course. If they don't, employees and other syndicate members must top up Bloom's gambling pot from their own pockets.
But the syndicate is more successful than not, and Starlizard's record in steering Bloom to victory has won the softly spoken Brighton-born 45-year-old a reputation as one of the most successful professional gamblers in the world.
Despite the huge sums involved and the wild success enjoyed, both Starlizard and Bloom’s syndicate have gone largely unnoticed outside the world of professional gambling.
All Starlizard employees are made to sign strict nondisclosure agreements when joining the company, and Starlizard does not engage with the press. Bloom will give interviews only about Brighton, and even then he generally speaks only to local media.
Bloom and Starlizard each declined to speak with Business Insider for this article. Both also declined to give any comment.
But Business Insider has spent the past few months investigating the company to understand just how it works. We persuaded several former employees to speak on the condition of anonymity, talked to industry insiders, and combed through old press cuttings to piece together a definitive history of the company and its founder.
'From the age of 8 or 9, I used to go down to the arcades'
Tony Bloom, the most successful sports bettor of his generation, first tasted the thrill of gambling young.
"From the age of 8 or 9, I used to go down to the arcades in West Street with some friends and play with our pocket money on the fruit machines," Starlizard's architect told Brighton's local paper The Argus. He gave the rare interview shortly after taking over his boyhood football club, Brighton and Hove Albion FC, in 2009.
Bloom, then 39, was at that point rich enough to pump £80 million worth of unsecured and interest-free loans into the club. His net worth is unknown, but there is speculation it could run into the billions. The Daily Mail reported that Bloom has to date sunk about £200 million into Brighton since taking control.
The money Bloom has pumped into the club has helped Brighton win promotion to the Championship, where they now sit in fourth place, vying for promotion to the Premier League next season. His devotion to the club has made him beloved among fans, who can occasionally spot him on the train to away matches.
When Bloom took over the club, The Telegraph dubbed him a multimillionaire property developer, and The Argus attributes much of the wealth to a portfolio of private equity and property investments. Neither mentioned Starlizard.
'To win big, you have to risk losing'
The word that comes up most when you ask former Starlizard employees about Bloom is "nice." The 45-year-old is well liked in the office but is seen as something of an unknown, suggesting that, as at the poker table, he keeps his cards close to his chest.
Despite being a millionaire many times over, Bloom, as well as the associates who are believed to profit from his gambling, is not flashy with his wealth, according to former Starlizard employees. "They don't all drive around in Ferraris," one says.
He is described in the press as an intensely private family man, and he has a 7-year-old son with his Australian-born wife, Linda, a psychologist. The family divide their time between a home in North London and Australia.
Bloom and his wife are trustees of the Bloom Foundation, and his wife runs the charity Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis. Linda was found to have MS 15 years ago.
Born in 1970, Bloom grew up in Brighton, the seaside town an hour south of London. He was educated at Lancing College, a £23,000-a-year private school founded in 1848 whose alumni include novelist Evelyn Waugh, playwright Sir David Hare, and Sinclair Beecham, the cofounder of Pret a Manger.
England cricket captain Michael Atherton plays a sweep shot during net training January 20, 1994 at the Antigua cricket ground. England start the first match of their three month tour this Sunday against an Antigua XI. SCANNED FROM NEGATIVE.
REUTERS/Kenny Rodger AVD/PN
Bloom told former England cricket captain Michael Atherton he lost £5,000 on a test match in 1994.
The boarding and day school is focused around its 50-meter-high chapel, which dominates the leafy grounds. Chapel attendance is compulsory for all pupils.
Lancing itself is rural, surrounded by fields. But the school is a half-hour drive from Brighton and, according to former England cricket captain Mike Atherton's 2006 book "Gambling," Bloom used a fake ID during visits to town to get into betting shops at just 15 — three years below the UK’s legal age for sports betting.
Bloom went on to study mathematics at Manchester University, where he continued his sports betting. "Early on I was a hopeless gambler really," Bloom told Atherton. "I liked to think that I understood the form and had a strategy but I was just guessing really."
Bloom worked at the accountancy firm Ernst & Young after graduating. He was still betting on sports, earning a bankroll of £20,000 from bets by the time he left Ernst & Young in 1993 to enter the City as a trader.
After just six months as an options trader, Bloom decided to become a professional gambler. He bet on football and cricket, at one time losing £5,000 on a single game of cricket: the England v West Indies test match of 1994.
"I believe in betting aggressively," he told Atherton. "And, occasionally, to win big, you have to risk losing."
Despite the test-match setback, Bloom won more often than not. His success caught the eye of the bookmaker Victor Chandler, which approached Bloom in the late 1990s to set up its international betting operation.
This job introduced Bloom to the market where he would make millions, Asia.
The Asian handicap
Sports betting and gambling are huge in Asia, but gambling on football operates very differently there, using a system called the Asian handicap.
Originating in Indonesia, the Asian handicap system is meant to even the playing field for both teams by giving the underdog a theoretical goal advantage.
To give an example: Manchester United are playing Norwich. Manchester United, the favourites, have a 2+ handicap, meaning they must win by at least two goals for a bet on them to succeed. Odds are given in decimal format rather than fractions. A two-goal handicap would be Manchester United at 2.0, for example.
In most cases the handicap will be much more fine-tuned than the above example, reflecting more precisely things like form and injuries — Manchester United 2.8, say. Payouts become more complicated for handicaps such as these, but the essential thing to grasp is that the handicap system rests on the number of goals scored by each team.
French players Bixente Lizarazu (C) and Zinedine Zidane (R) hold the cup watched by Robert Pires after their team defeated Brazil during the final of the 1998 World Cup at the Stade de France in Paris July 12. France won the match 3-0 and are World Champions.Reuters
Bloom persuaded Victor Chandler to bet everything it had made from the 1998 World Cup on France to win in the final.
If a team you've backed can't overcome the theoretical goal deficit — if Manchester United win by only 1-0 or 2-1 — you lose.
Bloom enjoyed much success setting up Victor Chandler's Asian betting operation, using his maths background to crunch stats on teams and come up with handicaps.
Bloom told The Argus in 2009: "I was one of the first people outside of Asia to take a keen interest and an understanding of it. I worked in Thailand for seven months, then Gibraltar for three years."
The 1998 World Cup in France was a pivotal moment in Bloom's life at Victor Chandler. Convinced the market was underestimating the odds of a French victory, Bloom persuaded Victor Chandler's management to bet everything it had won so far from the tournament on France to beat Brazil in the final. The host's 3-0 victory over Brazil netted a huge prize.
A former Starlizard employee described the story as the founding myth of Bloom's career. But no one Business Insider talked to knew the exact amount staked or how much Victor Chandler won. The company later became BetVictor, one of the UK's better-known online gambling brands.
'The low-key Lizard'
Emboldened by his success at Victor Chandler, Bloom went on to set up Premier Bet in 2002. The company was an early online bookmaker that took bets under the Asian handicap system.
A BBC article from the time describes how Bloom operated the company:
It is heartening to find that in this age of robot dogs, online everything and space stations, Mr Bloom works [the odds] out himself.
He has all the statistics to hand to help him work out what the handicap should be, but it basically boils down to him watching a huge amount of football and making a judgment based on what he sees.
In 2005, the business was sold to Interactive Gaming for £1.2 million. More success came riding the online poker wave of the 2000s. Two online poker sites he helped set up, Tribeca Tables and St Minver, sold in the mid-2000s. The deals were performance-linked and worth up to $204 million combined. It is not clear how much Bloom made from the sales.
As well as gambling at work, Bloom did it for pleasure. Bloom made a name for himself as a formidable, high-stakes poker player in the early 2000s. Bloom is listed by PokerNews.com as the 15th most successful live — as opposed to online — poker player, having won $3.3 million at tournaments to date. His form earned him the nickname "The Lizard" at the poker table — he must be cold-blooded to make such ice-cool decisions, people said.
Poker player and TV presenter Victoria Coren dubbed Bloom a "poker phenomenon," writing in The Guardian in 2010: "If tournament winnings (the flawed yet standard measure of poker success) were divided by number of tournaments played, the low-key Lizard would probably turn out to be the biggest winner in the world."
Bloom told The Times in 2011: "Poker gives you a good grounding in lots of things, including reading situations and reading people and making tough decisions. Those skills can be used in business and certainly in running a football club."
Bloom is incredibly unusual in that he plays at the highest level merely for fun, rather than professionally. He told Atherton that he inherited his love of gambling from his grandfather Harry Bloom, who owned greyhounds. He told Atherton: "He was a small-time gambler and probably a loser, as 99% of people are, but he loved it, and the losing never became out of control."
Bloom, who also runs marathons in his spare time, challenged US professional player Daniel Negreanu to a head-to-head game with a pot of $500,000 in 2005. After five hours, Bloom lost and "with his characteristic calm walked away," according to VegasInsider.com. He could afford to lose $500,000.
A Starlizard is born
Bloom clearly took a shine to his poker nickname, as he used it for his next venture, Starlizard, set up in 2006.
Starlizard represented a shift away from taking bets into advising on them. The company is a consultancy that offers proprietary odds analysis to rich clients looking to make smart, high-stakes bets. These high-rollers then use Starlizard's internally generated odds to identify "value" bets — instances in which the retail bookmaking market has underestimated or overestimated a team. In these cases, the risk-reward ratio is swayed in the bettor's favour.
An employee of Starlizard's rival Smartodds told The Guardian in 2011: "We're not trying to say this is going to happen, we're trying to say this will happen with a certain probability. If our probabilities are better than those of the bookmakers, then, in the long run, our clients will win money."
Starlizard specialises in estimates tailored for the Asian handicap market — Bloom's favourite — by calculating what it sees as the most likely scoreline for any given football match. This is crucial, as the handicap rests on the favourite scoring a certain number of goals. This advice generates revenue of about £13.8 million annually for Starlizard in fees from clients.
Bloom is not listed as a director of Starlizard, but several of his key lieutenants are: Steven Edery, described by former employees as Bloom's right-hand man; Marc Sugarman, a former Citigroup equity analyst who is also on Brighton's board; and Adam Franks, a chartered accountant who knows Bloom from his Manchester University days and who is finance director for all of Bloom's businesses. Franks is also on the Brighton board.
Everyone Business Insider talked to within the industry and who had worked at the company said that despite not appearing on the paperwork, Bloom was in charge. It's unclear why Bloom is not a director. He even keeps an apartment in the same building as Starlizard's Camden offices, according to one former employee.
'At university I made myself a promise that I would become fiercely disciplined'
As well as being Starlizard's architect, Bloom is also the company's biggest client.
About the same time that Starlizard was created, Bloom established a gambling syndicate, a group of close associates who would pool their money together to make high-stakes sports bets.
By increasing the available pot of betting money, the group maximises potential winnings. Bloom runs the syndicate and is believed to provide the vast majority of the bankroll.
A 2014 article on the sports website Bleacher Report suggested that Starlizard accepted outside money if an investor could stump up at least £2 million. But former employees and industry insiders spoke of Starlizard and Bloom's syndicate as one and the same, and they say Starlizard spends most of its time dealing with Bloom's syndicate.
I wanted to gamble because I enjoyed it and therefore I needed to do it properly in order to win. I didn't want to lose my money. — Tony Bloom
In essence, the company is Bloom's gambling money manager. Starlizard and Bloom declined to comment on these specific claims.
Starlizard's latest accounts, made up to June 2014, say the business is "diversifying revenue streams in order to reduce the risk of overreliance on a particular client."
While it's unclear why Bloom is not a director of Starlizard, it is clear why he set up the company.
Bloom acknowledged in Michael Atherton's 2006 book that he had "an addictive personality," saying: "At university I made myself a promise that I would become fiercely disciplined. I wanted to gamble because I enjoyed it and therefore I needed to do it properly in order to win. I didn't want to lose my money."
Starlizard allowed Bloom's syndicate to make cold, calculated decisions about where to stake cash, separating the decision-making from the money and making it as mathematical as possible — no gut feelings.
'Every aspect of football that you could think of was taken into consideration'
Starlizard helped pioneer a new, corporate approach to professional gambling, more closely resembling an investment bank or hedge fund than a bookmaker.
About 160 workers spend their days crunching statistics, building computer models, and doing huge deals on the other side of the world.
Some are fresh out of university, but ages range right up to the mid-40s. The mix of genders and races is diverse — all that matters is a razor-sharp understanding of the betting market and a head for statistics.
"It was a lot more professional and less laddish than working at a William Hill or a Bet365," a former employee says.
The company is split into four teams, each performing a specific role in the generation of odds. One generates data, another crunches that data into odds, a third decides which bets to take based on those odds, and a fourth places those bets on behalf of clients with bookmakers in Asia.
Pedro of Chelsea and Juan Mata of Manchester United in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on February 7, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by )
Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Starlizard's football researchers generate internal data on a team's form while watching matches.
In the Camden office there are about 30 football researchers who generate internal data. They do this by watching matches and recording things like goal-scoring opportunities or shots on target.
A former employee says: "If a game was 0-0 but the home team had missed a penalty, the best scoreline to go back into a predictive model would be something like 0.8. If a team missed a penalty and had, say, two shots where they hit the woodwork, they probably deserved to win."
These researchers also make it their business to get as close as possible to the action, speaking to a network of contacts that includes journalists and league experts. Their aim is to get as much information on things like morale, form, team sheets, and training as possible.
A former employee told Business Insider: "Every aspect of football that you could think of was taken into consideration. I guess that's why they're so good at what they do. The weather, morale, anyone related to the club, [they] would be analysed under the microscope. It was pretty impressive."
The data generated by Starlizard's researchers is plugged into a highly complex statistical computer model, built by another team, the "quants." These are the computer whizzes you would usually find in investment banks.
These quants are based in a separate office, out in Exeter, and spend their days building and maintaining an algorithm that not only pulls together all of the data points, but also decides the right weighting for each.
Speaking about his gambling philosophy in general, Bloom told The Times in 2011: "A lot of otherwise good gamblers may read too much into injuries. Sometimes the odds can get too skewed because one or two players are out. When I analyse situations, I don't want to go overboard on one side."
The weather, morale, anyone related to the club, [they] would be analysed under the microscope. — Former Starlizard employee
The computer model is tweaked nearly constantly, according to former employees, and it uses statistical models to predict the likelihood of every possible scoreline. It then churns out what it sees as the most accurate handicap for the match — Leicester at 1.18 against Aston Villa, for example.
The odds generated in Exeter are passed back to the Camden office, where a team of "selectors" reviews them. This smaller team — about 20 people — operates like the traders in a bank. It tries to identify mispriced bets in the retail market, based on the team's internal odds, and decide just how much to stake on behalf of Bloom and other clients.
These decisions are relayed to bet placers, the fourth team. As well as paying for access to Starlizard's proprietary odds, clients are paying for access to its black book of contacts in markets like China, Thailand, and Indonesia. Starlizard's odds are tailored to these markets, but it can be difficult to access Asian bookmakers unless you know the right people.
'Especially on match day, you know it's the big boys playing'
Bet placers operate like brokers, placing bets on behalf of clients. But the bet placers themselves work through a series of brokers in Asia, contacting them over the phone or using online messaging tools.
Working this way helps Starlizard obscure its presence in the market — the company is now well known in Asian betting, and knowledge of its ordering a bet would move the odds.
Jesper Søgaard, CEO of Better Collective, an information-sharing platform for amateur gamblers, says: "If they take a position, they will definitely move the entire market. They do as much as possible to not let others know about their position."
"I can't tell you any 'last weekend they had this position' — I don't know that. But what I can see is the market moved and that signals one of the big syndicates made a move. Especially on match day, you know it's the big boys playing."
A Hong Kong man walks away after placing a bet on a soccer match at the Hong Kong Jockey Club off-course betting centre on the first day of legalised soccer betting in Hong Kong August 1, 2003. The Hong Kong government is facing a barrage of criticism over the decision to legalise soccer betting, a move which the government said would sweep many illegal soccer betting operations off the field.
A Hong Kong man seen after placing a bet on a soccer match at the Hong Kong Jockey Club off-course betting centre on the first day of legalised soccer betting in Hong Kong, August 1, 2003.
Industry experts estimate there are up to 12 sizable professional gambling syndicates worldwide, though exact figures are unclear. Some are even more clandestine than Starlizard, as they are involved in match-fixing.
This is an anathema to Starlizard's approach, which depends on as clean a game as possible to let the statistics come good. There is no suggestion of any legal wrongdoing in Starlizard's operations.
Starlizard will typically place bets as close to match day as possible to guard against any new information that could move against them — an injury to a key player in training, for example.
A Premier League match will create the most liquid pool of bets. Starlizard will try to bet at least £1 million on behalf of Bloom and any other clients. Placing bets of this size without skewing the odds would be near impossible in Europe, but in Asia — one of the most liquid gambling markets in the world — it can go undetected.
Starlizard must stake bets this big because its margins are razor thin — it's a volume game.
'Wherever there's football, they're betting on it'
Starlizard doesn’t just follow major leagues like the Premier League. A former employee says, "Wherever there's football, they're betting on it."
(Bloom's syndicate and Starlizard don't place any bets on Brighton, given Bloom and other directors' roles at the club.)
Leagues as esoteric as Japan, Turkey, and Australia are closely studied to find value bets. Stringers in these markets will feed back information on things like form and likely team sheets.
When placing bets on smaller leagues, smaller sums must be wagered so as not to spook the market — £10,000 here, £20,000 there. Cricket is also bet on, though to a lesser extent.
Former Spain striker David Villa (L), playing for Melbourne City football club, prepares to take a shot at goal as Sebastian Ryall from Sydney FC tries to tackle him during their A-League soccer match at the Sydney Football Stadium October 11, 2014. Villa made his A-League debut for Melbourne City this weekend, and is the highest profile recruit to the Australian competition this season. The 32-year old is on loan from New York City, and will play ten games for the Melbourne club, having not played since Spain's final match of the World Cup against Australia.REUTERS/David Gray
Former Spain striker David Villa, left, playing for Melbourne City football club. Starlizard bets on leagues around the world, not just in the UK.
The upshot of betting in less popular leagues is that the relative information void means it can often be easier to find an edge — bookies spend less time on the Romanian form tables than they would for La Liga.
The downside to this extensive approach, a former employee says, is that "someone has to be in the office betting on it." Starlizard's Camden headquarters are open 24/7, and it's not unusual for people to come in at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. to watch a match going on halfway around the world.
That's because if things appear to be going the syndicate's way, Starlizard will make additional bets during the match on behalf of its client, doubling down to increase the potential winnings.
Weekends are a write-off for staff too, as that's when most football is played. It is frowned upon to be out of the office on Saturday and Sunday.
'There was a lot of drinking, socialising, and parties'
But there are significant upsides that make Starlizard's unusual hours worth it.
Bloom and other directors are not afraid to spend money to keep their staff happy and the offices are kitted out with the type of luxuries you'd find at Goldman Sachs or Google. Behind the Icework's smoked-glass windows there's a free gym with changing rooms, a steam room, and showers; a full kitchen offering free food; and a games room with pool tables and darts.
The company maintains a box at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium, according to former employees, as well as boxes at other top Premier League clubs. Employees get to visit.
One former employee remembers the whole company being packed up on coaches and taken down to the Amex Stadium, the 30,000-capacity home ground of Bloom's Brighton.
Staff were invited to tour Brighton's home ground and play a team of ex-pros.Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images
Brighton's Amex stadium.
After a stadium tour, Starlizard's first nine went up against a team of ex-pros drafted in for the day. Commentators were on hand, and Sky Sports' cameras, usually stationed for league games, were drafted into use. Everyone went home with a DVD of the day's action.
On quieter days in the office, the atmosphere is relaxed, with one former employee saying workers could leave to play sports in the middle of the day with no bother.
And management ensures there are regular treats to keep everyone sweet. One former employee described spending on staff parties as "obscene." Starlizard hires out exclusive bars and clubs in London in full — "They don't want any old riff raff turning up," one former employee joked. On these occasions, free drinks flow all night.
Camden, the birthplace of punk and home of Amy Winehouse, feels as if it has a pub on every corner, and former Starlizard workers say they would often socialise in the area after-hours.
One former Starlizard worker says: "There was a lot of drinking, socialising, and parties."
'You could quite easily be getting £10,000 every 6 months — who would turn that down?'
But these sorts of benefits pale in comparison to the biggest sweetener of all — the money.
Former Starlizard workers say the base pay was unspectacular, with those on the betting side earning something similar to what they would at a High Street bookmaker — £25,000 to £40,000, depending on the role. The quants who maintained the odds algorithm also made what they would in a similar role at a bank.
But after new arrivals pass their probation, former employees told Business Insider, they are called into finance director Adam Franks' office and offered what amounts to a golden ticket: a stake in Bloom's syndicate.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a share of the winnings of one of the most, if not the most, successful sports bettor in the world.
Gambling winnings from Bloom's multimillion-pound pot are paid out to stakeholders generally twice a year, with payouts ranging from below £100 to upward of £500,000 every six months, according to former employees. The payouts depend on how big an employee's stake — dubbed "stars" — in the syndicate is.
Best of all, when Starlizard workers are invited to join the syndicate, they don't even have to put any money in; they just get a stake of the winnings as if it were a bonus. (And because it's gambling winnings, the money is tax-exempt under UK law.)
Napoli's Gonzalo Higuain celebrates after scoring by penalty during their Serie A soccer match against Torino at the San Paolo stadium in Naples, October 27, 2013. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca
REUTERS/Ciro De Luca
If results go the syndicate's way, Starlizard workers who are in on the syndicate are in line for big payouts.
Most of the staff is in on the syndicate. A former employee says: "You could quite easily be getting £10,000 every six months — who would turn that down?"
If the free payouts sound too good to be true, however, it is because they are. As well as being in line for any winnings, those who opt in to the syndicate are also on the hook for any losses. If there is a losing run, the staff has to help top up the gambling pot.
But losses are rare. A former employee who was with the company for most of its 10-year existence recalled just one significant period of losses.
Yes, the syndicate may have a run of losing bets. But across the year, Starlizard almost always came out on top, and the irregularity of repayments meant people were shielded.
An employee at one of the High Street bookmakers who declined to be named told Business Insider, "They don't beat the market all the time, just enough times."
It's worth dwelling on that for a second — just one period of losses across almost 10 years. That's a stunning record. Gambling is a losing game in which the bookmaker always comes out on top. For ordinary bettors who put a few quid on a match, it's essentially a tax on people who don't understand the laws of probability.
But Bloom and his team have managed to build a statistical model that has allowed them to consistently beat the market for the best part of a decade.
'People treated it like MPs treated expenses'
As a result of these regular payouts, many employees stay at Starlizard for a long time. Stints of five years or more are not unusual.
A former employee adds: "Once you're in there, it's very hard to work anywhere else. The skill set for some of the jobs there is so specific to that industry. You have to start again almost if you want to work somewhere else."
Recruitment is relatively rare, and when new workers are brought in, they know little about what the company actually does. Interviewees are pulled through a network of recruiters who know little about the business — one ex-staffer remembers being quizzed about what Starlizard did by the recruiter who had referred him.
Vetting is extensive too, with interviewees forced to explain any résumé gaps and in-depth background checks.
Once in, employees are bound by a strict code of secrecy about what it is they do. They can't have Twitter profiles and are made to sign strict nondisclosure agreements. They can tell people whom they work for, though some are even reluctant to do that.
Brighton manager Gus Poyet (L) and chairman Tony Bloom hold aloft the Division One trophy after the npower League One match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town at Withdean Stadium on April 30, 2011 in Brighton, United Kingdom. (Photo by )Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Bloom with former Brighton FC manager Gus Poyet after Brighton won the Division One trophy in 2011.
Starlizard enforces this level of secrecy because its advantage comes from keeping its value bets a secret — if word got out that it were recommending clients back, say, Swansea this weekend, it would move odds and the edge would be lost. The potential returns would diminish, making the risk not as attractive.
A former employee adds: "If Tony Bloom is making something a value bet this weekend, the likelihood is it'll be a value bet next weekend too." Leaks have the potential to scupper not just this week's work, but next week's too.
Bloom has good reason to fear leaks. In the early days of the syndicate, insiders were filling their pockets at the expense of the company.
Several former employees confirmed to Business Insider that early employees would front-run the syndicate, placing personal bets on teams when they knew Starlizard was making a value bet that week. That eroded the company's advantage by skewing the odds.
The problem was rife, with one former employee saying, "People treated it like MPs treated expenses." Starlizard declined to comment on this specific allegation.
To combat this problem, Starlizard barred employees from placing personal bets and broke up the business' operations to limit information sharing.
In the Camden offices, security is tight. Building passes will allow you to get into only certain floors, similar to an investment bank. That keeps different departments from sharing too much information.
And having the quants who maintain the algorithm based in a separate office in Exeter also silos knowledge. A former employee suggested only a handful of people knew how the whole thing worked.
'We're talking turnover of more than several hundred million pounds a year'
As a result of the secrecy, it's hard to know exactly how much Starlizard bets on behalf of Bloom's syndicate across a year or how much is won. Starlizard employees in the syndicate know how much they get paid out personally and have an idea of bet sizes each week, but across the year it is harder to tell.
Former employees and industry figures I spoke with estimate that Bloom's syndicate makes profits of £20 million to £100 million depending on how the year went. Bloom and Starlizard declined to comment on these figures.
To win the amount of money that former workers say it does, the syndicate must wager huge sums each year. Former employees say the syndicate is looking for a return on money invested of just 1% to 3%. A bookmaker, by comparison, typically has a margin of 10% to 15%. Better Collective's Søgaard says, "We're talking turnover of more than several hundred million pounds a year."
It seems more likely that the syndicate's profits are closer to £20 million than £100 million. To make £100 million on a 3% margin the syndicate would have to be wagering £3.3 billion.
Still, the rumoured profitability has earned Bloom a reputation as the godfather of football gambling. Keith Sobey, who runs a London sports-betting academy, told The Wall Street Journal in 2010, "He's probably the most successful soccer bettor in the world." Everyone Business Insider talked to within the industry echoed this sentiment.
Bloom's net worth is unknown, but there is speculation he could be a billionaire. The Jewish Chronicle estimated his wealth at £50 million in 2009, but in the same year he loaned Brighton £80 million and was quoted by the same paper as saying: "This is all my money. It is not loans from banks, and it is not somebody else's money."
Whatever the exact figure, his wealth almost certainly runs into the hundreds of millions — at least.
Bloom versus Benham
Football Soccer - Brighton & Hove Albion v Brentford - Sky Bet Football League Championship - The American Express Community Stadium - 5/2/16 Brighton's Anthony Knockaert in action with Brentford's John Swift Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Peter Cziborra Livepic
Action Images/Peter Cziborra Livepic/Reuters
Matthew Benham's Brentford, in black, taking on Bloom's Brighton FC.
Bloom is not the only professional sports bettor in Britain. And Starlizard is not the only gambling consultancy in the UK — not even the only one in North London.
Bloom's great rival is Matthew Benham, the owner of Brentford FC who founded Smartodds, another stats-based gambling consultancy.
Similarities between Bloom and Benham abound. Like Bloom, Benham is a former City trader. Like Bloom, Benham has adopted a hedge-fund-like model, paying computer whizzes to build algorithms that help him beat the market. And like Bloom, Benham owns his boyhood football club.
Despite the similarities between the two, Benham and Bloom are archrivals. The pair first crossed paths at Premier Bet, the online bookmaker Bloom founded. Benham worked for Bloom, but the pair had a falling out that left them bitter rivals.
Former Starlizard employees say the feud is discussed often in the office but little understood beyond rumour and gossip.
SmartOdds was founded in 2004, two years before Starlizard, and it is based in Highgate, North London — just down the road from Bloom's offices.
Benham took over Brentford in 2012 and is noted for following a "Moneyball-style" statistical approach to running the club, an approach that helped him win the Danish super league with his other football club, Midtjylland.
Brighton took on Brentford in the Championship last Friday. Bloom's team triumphed 3-0.
As Benham has risen alongside Bloom, the Asian market has opened up. New bookmakers like Pinnacle and SBO Bet, a former shirt sponsor of West Ham, have made it easier to access the market, while online literature has promoted a greater understanding of both how the market works and how to play in it.
"There's a lot more people who are professional sports bettors in European sports than there used to be," Bloom told Bloomberg last year.
The edge Bloom had from being the first to really understand the Asian handicap market has slowly been eroded.
So too has the advantage he gained from bringing statistics and computer modelling to the market. Others have cottoned on, and many more sports analytics consultancies have sprung up. As punters have got smarter, so too have bookmakers.
Former employees say as the years have worn on it has got harder and harder to beat the bookies, with razor-thin margins squeezed even more.
But the syndicate continues undeterred. Starlizard continues to sharpen its high-tech computer model daily and find its edge. Tony "The Lizard" Bloom, a gambler at heart, is unlikely to give up just because the odds are against him.
Share your opinions & predictions on football teams, horse racing, etc. Or just chat about the sports.
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