Ethan Shone 3rd June 2018
UPDATE (4 June 16.01): Since this story was published, The Overtake has been contacted by someone claiming to be from Ghoul Bet and alleging the organisation is a hoax. While The Overtake took a lot of care in reporting the original story, speaking to multiple sources over a number of months, in the spirit of transparency we are currently looking into the claims.
Ghoul Bet is a private online bookmaker that sets odds and takes bets on natural disasters, terrorist attacks, school shootings and more — or, as its Twitter bio puts it, “betting on the DISGUSTING”.
It’s a private and elaborate network — first operated through text message and in person, now over encrypted messaging apps and social media — which allows punters to place high stakes bets on the type of markets that don’t appear in your average bookies.
From the method of suicide chosen by a recently deceased actor to the religion of the perpetrator of a terror attack; from the cause of death of a young girl at a music festival to the total number of casualties after a huge earthquake. Odds are offered, spreads laid out, bets are placed — and sometimes even requested — and money is made.
The organisation has been offering this niche service for over 15 years, the operation being run by three men now in their early 40s – one of whom is “more a silent partner who takes a lot of the risk”. For most of this time, Ghoul Bet only existed as a closed group of hobbyists but earlier this year the bookmaker stepped out of the shadows and joined Twitter, hoping to expand its clientele and “show how good we think we are at this”.
In a bid to understand this bizarre and, to borrow a word, disgusting hobby, we speak exclusively with the owners of Ghoul Bet, as well as a few of its customers.
“We run a bookmaker, ultimately,” says one of the owners. “We aren’t licensed, we aren’t regulated. There’s a small group of us that run it. We monitor news and events around the world and then set fixed odds and spread markets.”
It sounds innocuous enough. Putting aside the issues of licensing and regulation, a private bookmakers doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, does it?
A scroll through Ghoul Bet’s Twitter profile shows a tweet from primary news agency the Associated Press, with breaking news that a train has derailed near Milan with two dead and 10 injured. Ghoul Bet has retweeted it with the simple caption, “#Deathspread 3.8-4.2.”
A “death spread” is a basic spread bet. By offering a death spread of 3.8-4.2, Ghoul Bet is making a prediction on the total number of deaths. From this, a customer can either buy or sell deaths for their chosen stake. So, if a customer thinks there’ll be more deaths than Ghoul Bet has predicted, they would buy deaths. Let’s say they bought deaths at £50 each and the total number of deaths ended up being 10, the customer would win their stake multiplied by the amount of deaths over the top-end of the prediction.
A lot of it is about moving quickly and being as ahead of the news as we can
A little further down the feed, Sky News Breaking reports 54 people have died and 75 have been injured in Egypt, after militants attacked a mosque. Again, it’s retweeted with odds, which are then revised in a series of tweets, the death spread getting higher and higher each time.
“#Deathspread has been revised to 146-152.”
“…we are taking a beating, 183-190 is the new #Deathspread.”
The implication is, as more information has come out and the death toll has continued to rise, Ghoul Bet has received a lot of bets for “over the amount of deaths” and continued to revise its estimations upward to try and entice more bets and hopefully account for the money already lost.
When separated from the context, this constant sizing up and calculating of odds is extremely professional. On events which differ massively, each with innumerable fluctuating variables and very limited time to offer up the odds, it’s no doubt a difficult task to get right.
“We have a background in the bookmaking industry and trading in general. We have a number of sources and methods which we feel give us the best desired edge, and we build bigger margins to allow for the fact that nobody really knows the most efficient method for setting these markets. A lot of it is about moving quickly and being as ahead of the news as we can.”
As well as lamenting its losses on Twitter, GhoulBet trades jokes with customers.
“Glad to see a seller on the screens at #GhoulBet towers, more bloodshed than North Sinai here.”
“No bodybags in North Sinai, JCB job it sounds like.”
Aside from a small handful of likes and replies, most tweets get very little reaction. The Ghoul Bet account currently has less than 200 followers so, it’s not clear if there’s actually much of an audience for this. The founders claim to have 174 people on their books at the moment but that number isn’t likely to balloon any time soon.
Sometimes we don’t hear from someone for months and then suddenly they drop £2,000 on a death spread
“We’ve gradually grown in size but it’s a small, exclusive group. To bet with us you have to be referred by a current customer. We probably have 70-80 active customers but this fluctuates based on the bet or the event. Sometimes we don’t hear from someone for months and then suddenly they drop £2,000 on a death spread.”
But who are these customers and why do they do it? Is there some kind of sick pleasure that comes from knowing the bet you just won was made possible by the deaths of several hundred innocent people? Or is this, for some who just love the act of gambling, simply another market to bet on? Albeit a novelty one but potentially a more lucrative one, too?
We segment customers into ‘ghouls’ and ‘angels’
Ghoul Bet explains its basic categorisation of its clients: “We wouldn’t comment properly on the nature of the motivation of our customers, but we segment them into ‘ghouls’ and ‘angels’. Ghouls are mainly buyers, so they’ll go over on the deaths line or buy total deaths. Whereas, angels are the opposite, selling deaths and hoping for less.”
This explanation suggests that there’s something particular about the subject of these bets which appeals to the customers. Their bets aren’t necessarily based on what they think to be more likely, but what they’d like to see happen.
Judging by Ghoul Bet’s Twitter feed, it would seem ghouls are in far greater supply than angels. It’s worth noting that a majority of its followers, particularly those it interacts with regularly, all have something in their Twitter handles to suggest they are into wagering in general and many tweet almost exclusively about betting on cricket and other sports, implying that most are habitual gamblers.
There’s no hard and fast rule for what type of events Ghoul Bet puts up odds on — though it says while there would be no event too grim or tragic to be wagered on, “nothing personal” would ever be accepted and everything, of course, must be independently verifiable.
Largely, it seems to be content to stay under the radar, not going too far out of its way to attract attention, more happy to pick up the odd few clients here and there. Occasionally, though, there’ll be a tweet which seems designed as much to be shocking as to drum up business among existing customers.
On 25 April at 11.46am, three days before doctors turned off the ventilator of Alfie Evans, a 23-month-old boy with a terminal brain condition, Ghoul Bet posts: “NEW: Alfie Evans days until death spread at 9-12 with a max make up of 50. We expect to see #AlfiesArmy buying this spread in numbers”
Ghoul Bet only joined Twitter in Autumn 2017 so, until recently, tragedies were gambled upon largely behind closed doors, free from scrutiny.
Tim is a punter who Ghoul Bet describes as its “biggest player”. After the ghoul/angels dynamic is explained to me, I’m eager to find out which category their biggest customer falls into, but Tim insists he is much more pragmatic in his tactics.
I knew a fireman at Grenfell so did very well out of buying deaths there
“I will just look at each event as it unfolds and try to find out any angles. For example, I knew a fireman at Grenfell so did very well out of buying deaths there,” he says.
This month marks one year since a blaze engulfed Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, London, when a fire started accidentally on the fourth floor and was spread through the majority of the building by flammable exterior cladding.
I was delighted with the final make up of 71 deaths for £25,000 profit
“I bought Grenfell Deaths for £500 per person at 17-21, so was delighted with the final make up of 71 for £25,000 profit,” he claims.
Perhaps becoming aware of how horrifying this might sound to an outsider, Tim hurriedly clarifies: “Would rather my Twitter name is kept out of your article, please.”
The Grenfell bet was Tim’s biggest ever win but, like any habitual gambler, he’s had his share of losses too.
“I lost a lot on the Twin Towers debacle, which was my first bet in the very early days of Ghoul Bet,” he says.
The terror attack on 9/11 was Ghoul Bet’s first market. Tim remembers the founders selling deaths at 500 for £5 a point.
The second plane hitting was devastating for me, as it cost me an extra £5,000
“The second plane hitting was devastating for me, as it cost me an extra £5,000. Seeing them go down like a pack of cards, my heart sank, as did my wallet.”
Tim explains that ghoul betting is “just a fun sideline” and that he mainly bets on cricket. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he also says that he doesn’t talk to anyone else about his ghoul betting.
The team confirm Tim did indeed win £25,000 on a single bet; and yes, he also lost thousands of pounds on 9/11.
Unlicensed and unregulated
One interesting element of this type of private betting is the amount of trust involved.
Take Tim’s big loss on 9/11; the amount he lost could not have been predicted and the difference between the stake and the actual amount owed in the end was huge. What would have stopped Tim from just not paying up? If that had been the case, what could have been done? If Ghoul Bet operates outside of official licensing and regulatory bodies, is there any way to insure it gets what it’s owed or for its punters to guarantee they get paid out?
In short, no.
We also have stop losses in place, so if a spread gets away from you, it gets closed and the bet is finished
“There’s a lot of honour among pro/semi-pro gamblers and you never want to be a leach,” explains an owner.
“Of course, the other aspect is that we have max bets for most markets and customers, much like mainstream bookies do. We also have stop losses in place, so if a spread gets away from you, it gets closed and the bet is finished. As for Tim, we have known him a long time and know he is good for the bets he places.”
Another customer who is, again, keen to insist on anonymity, presents very differently to Tim. For a start, he very much buys into Ghoul Bet’s categorisation system.
“I’m definitely an angel,” says Stuart*.
I like to think I do my part hoping for the best
“Whilst there are always opportunities to make money, I only wish for the best. I’m sure there are plenty that try to make money off the back of tragedies but I like to think I do my part hoping for the best.”
Having only started dealing with Ghoul Bet relatively recently, he’s yet to become a full cynic. He’s also keen to stress that ghoul betting to him is just another market and he takes no extra pleasure in the events being so tragic.
“It’s purely something else to trade on. Much like Eurovision or Counterstrike GO, but I’m also more emotionally invested because I’m always betting on the best outcome for life and humanity.”
In recalling some of his more recent bets, the apparent angel is almost unbelievably earnest.
“I recently bet on the Red Arrows tragedy. Horrifying. Under 0.5 deaths because I thought the safety protocols would have averted the tragedy and, quite frankly, it hurt me emotionally more than financially.
“I also had a huge bet on under one death when a gunman took over Nuneaton bowling alley last year and took hostages. I remember I used to bowl there all the time in tournaments and felt the layout was going to be very tough for anyone to get hurt; escapes were highly likely. It also seemed more like a cry for help from the gunman, in my opinion. So, that was a great day for all involved.”
Betting on this stuff makes no difference to the outcome so I think it’s all fair game
Though not particularly comfortable talking about specific sums, Stuart does claim “four figures have changed hands”. However, he’s pretty sure those who bet for the worst will have much more opportunity to make big money because “the ceiling is much higher”. There are plenty of things that Stuart wouldn’t feel comfortable betting on too; “school shootings for instance, not for me”. Like Tim, he doesn’t talk to anyone outside the Ghoul Bet circle about this aspect of his gambling.
Is it kinder to be an “angel” and to back the better outcome? Stuart doesn’t know. “It’s hard to say. I just know that I will continue to think for the best, pray and hope all things go well,” he adds.
Presumably, not well enough that there’s nothing to bet on.
It’s not particularly moral but the stock market continues during any event and nothing anyone here can do will change the outcomes
On the morality of Ghoul Bet, Tim’s take is straightforward: “I totally understand that people will find it distasteful and that is their right. Betting on this stuff makes no difference to the outcome though, so I think it’s all fair game.”
Stuart offers a fairly thoughtful answer: “It’s not particularly moral but the stock market continues during any event and nothing anyone here can do will change the outcomes. I’m certain if anyone who bets with Ghoul Bet could do something [to help] in the event of a tragedy, then they would. Really, it’s just outcome prediction, the same as anything else. But I get why people will be unhappy.”
We have no influence over the events so don’t see it as ‘profiting’ off misfortune
The very name Ghoul Bet, the branding, the messaging and the essence of what it does suggests that, to some extent, it revels in what it offers being particularly macabre and grim. Despite this, it seemed to take umbrage with even the pretty mild description of “distasteful”.
“To some, of course, it is distasteful but we have no influence over the events, so don’t see it as ‘profiting’ off misfortune. That misfortune happens around the world, regardless.”
This claim, that it doesn’t see it as profiting off misfortune, strikes a highly discordant note. Ghoul Bet can certainly say that betting has absolutely no influence on these events. Going further, it could perhaps make the point that, due to its low following and generally under-the-radar strategy, the likelihood of anyone actually affected by these events chancing upon Ghoul Bet’s account is quite low.
But let’s be clear: Ghoul Bet absolutely does profit from these tragedies — its sophisticated formulas ensure that in the long term, the house always wins.
“Well, yes, technically we profit off the back of these happenings, but does Sky News? Does ITV? Yes, of course they do. But they aren’t called distasteful, even though they are. We are satisfying a demand. It’s as simple as that.”
Ethan Shone 3rd June 2018