Victor Chandler made his name as "a gentleman book-keeper": renowned for "the virtually forgotten practice of accepting any size of bet", says The Observer. Many clients, acquired first at Ascot, and later in Mayfair and Soho, became friends. He dined with Francis Bacon on Old Compton Street, had his portrait painted by Lucian Freud, and regularly appeared as "the bookmaker" in Jeffrey Bernard's Spectator column. But while Chandler keeps the bespoke service ticking over, the meat of his enterprise is now online gambling and emerging markets. He has become "the Indiana Jones of global gambling".
With a turnover of around £1bn, Victor Chandler International (VCI) is by no means the biggest international betting house, but Chandler has a reputation for blazing trails. He was one of the first to recognise the huge appetite of China's new rich for betting on European football and in 1999 became the chief instigator of the great flight offshore to Gibraltar, now home to Party Gaming, 888.com and 32 Red. Chandler, 57, is among the Rock's more swashbuckling characters, but now he's married with two young children, he's given up his high-living days and is happiest on his estancia (ranch) over the Spanish border.
Still, a visit to Chandler's shabby 1970s-style office is an eye-opener. On one wall hangs a huge portrait of Lester Piggott (another old friend). On the other is written, "A moth lives longer than a winning VC account." After some hair-raising experiences establishing offshoots in Macau, Kuala Lumpur and Buenos Aires, talking tough comes naturally to Chandler, a gravel-voiced chain-smoker who favours white suede shoes, says The Sunday Times. Bookmaking is in his blood. His grandfather started the business in 1946 and is credited with opening Walthamstow dog track. Chandler had "a very comfortable upbringing of country houses, horses and public school". Expelled from Highgate, he was welcomed into Millfield, reportedly as a means of settling the headmaster's gambling debts.
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He wasn't an obvious choice to take over the business. My father thought "I was the laziest person he'd ever come across", he told Management Today, and believed gambling had no future. "He thought the Tote would take everything over and the industry would be nationalised." Chandler went to catering college in Switzerland, but spent most of his time "bumming around in Ibiza and Mallorca". This ended abruptly in 1973 when his father died prematurely and he had to take over the business to support his mother and younger sisters.
Chandler had a rough time of it (the firm had lost its prime pitches at Goodwood and Ascot), and nearly sold out to Playboy in 1976. But he eventually triumphed after touting for business around Ascot's private boxes, despite getting into "terrible trouble" with the course's clerk. It was the first of many run-ins with the authorities, says The Daily Telegraph. In 1998, his home and offices were raided by police in a race-fixing investigation (no evidence of wrongdoing was found). He later hit the headlines because of huge bets he was taking from England football star Michael Owen and faced Football Association probes. Last year, he was briefly arrested by French police at the Arc de Triomphe. He takes it all in his stride. Put it down to "bad luck", he says.
Kidnap threats, fine, but what on earth is wrong with the bubbly?
Behind the bravado, Victor Chandler is driven by anxiety, says Management Today. "You always wonder if something you haven't foreseen can bring you down," he says. He's probably right to worry: anything can happen in this game. He escaped the worst of the fall-out when America criminalised online gambling two years ago because VCI had been slow to develop there. But last year, his most senior manager was arrested in Israel, VCI's third-largest market.
Chandler is optimistic: "To a large degree our business has lost its stigma. Countries will legalise, regulate and tax." But some argue that online poker is a "busted flush" and that Chandler needs a new big idea. All the more so, given the clobbering taken by so many high-rolling clients in the City.
Expanding into Asia, while frightening at times, is the obvious way forward. Chandler has faced gang warfare, kidnap threats and was issued a bomb-proof car in Macau. He sees betting in South Korea as "a very dark, grey area". India is a no-hoper. They "have got all the betting tied up. You never, never win." China looks promising, particularly as "gambling isn't frowned on". But "the more I go, the less I understand China".
He's come miles from his old haunts, says The Observer. But traces of the former Chandler still shine through. During one round of negotiations in Macau, in which he was the only one at the table without a gun, the party quaffed a bottle of '47 Latour. The shock of discovering they were adulterating it with saccharine "was far more unsettling to Chandler than the hardware".
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