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|Calvin Ayre: web gambling's king of bling takes a chance on the
| The founder of
international gaming brand Bodog is typically confident that a US legal storm
won't affect his firm
someone routinely characterised as a jetsetting billionaire playboy, there are
a lot of places Calvin Ayre won't go. The founder of online gambling brand
Bodog predictably refuses to travel to the US, where internet gaming is facing
intense legal scrutiny, but he also insists that he'll never return to his home
province of Saskatchewan in Canada, where the remoteness bores him. And now he
won't be dropping in on the Poles much, either.
"I have just been
mugged in Krakow," he explains, seemingly recovered, sipping pink champagne in
a Fitzrovia bar. "I spent two days in my hotel room waiting for a flight back
to England. I am never going back."
Ayre recalls how he was tricked
into entering a bar late one night by a pair of young women. You might already
be able to guess the rest: his companions disappeared and left him to a group
of men, who knocked him to the ground, escorted him to a cash machine and
relieved him of 1,000 zlotys (about £220).
If they had known who
he was they would have surely asked for more, but it was still not the way that
Ayre had planned to spend that leg of his 50th birthday celebrations
which include a tour taking in London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Madrid, Ibiza,
Barcelona and Ayr (more of which later).
Still, for some observers, the
Polish setback represents one of the few poor hands that the entrepreneur has
been dealt in the past decade.
Ayre, whose pig-farmer father was
convicted of smuggling marijuana, was barred from acting as a director of a
public company in British Columbia following a share-trading scandal in the
1990s. However, he recovered from that setback to create Bodog, one of the
largest online gambling brands in the world, and the business's growth led to
him judging televised lingerie contests during the Super Bowl and being the
subject of a six-page profile in Playboy (he bought 3,000 copies of the issue
for himself). It has also funded two homes in Vancouver and three in Antigua,
plus pads in Costa Rica, Thailand and the Philippines, where he hosts lavish
parties, typically attended by big-spending gamblers, rap artists, armed
bodyguards and bikini-clad Bodog Girls.
"I invited 50 girls to my birthday party in
Dublin, one for each year," he beams. So, how many did you, er... ? "Just two,"
he fires back. "I was drunk."
There are other, more graphic, tales
along similar lines, one of which begins: "Asia is the best place in the world
because they..." But let's leave it there. Ayre's message is clear: here is a
man who deliberately races towards whatever boundary he can find.
reputation was sealed at Bodog, which began life focusing on taking bets from
the legally dubious US market. The company mushroomed to take $7.3bn
(£4.4bn) in wagers in 2005, and Forbes estimated Ayre's net worth to be
"at least $1bn". It proved to be the peak of his earning power. "At the time,
they undervalued it," he says.
"There's no way I'm worth a billion now,
but I'll be a billionaire for the rest of my life because of that article."
The trigger for the slump came a year after the magazine piece, which
was provocatively headlined "Cyber bookie Calvin Ayre sticks it to Uncle Sam:
catch me if you can". The US government was no longer enjoying the joke and
moved swiftly against companies that allowed Americans to gamble online. In
October 2006, new legislation was passed that barred banks from making
internet-wager-related money transfers.
Overnight, everything changed.
An exodus of companies from their largest, most profitable market followed.
Ayre, who is resident in Antigua and a Canadian citizen, remodelled his
business, finessing it into a brand that he licensed to other gambling
Bodog's British partner has just obtained a Gambling
Commission licence to operate in the UK, while the US website is now run by
Canada-based Morris Mohawk Gaming Group (MMGG), which continues to take
American bets. That is despite a further move by the US department of justice
in April, when it indicted the top three sites still taking bets: PokerStars,
Full Tilt and Absolute Poker.
Bodog was not on the list, though its
name did appear briefly in an affidavit in a related case about the seizure of
domain names, albeit with the Bodog domain itself unaffected. Still, is there a
chance that Ayre and/or his brand could get dragged into the case?
"It's impossible," he insists. "Though [the Bodog] name was included, I
can't see any reason why it should have been other than to get publicity. Bodog
wasn't involved in any of that... Alwyn Morris [chief executive of MMGG] does
have a business that takes bets from the US. And he does have a brand licensing
deal with me. But he told me that he doesn't know any of those [payment]
processors [mentioned in the filings]."
During a recent insider dealing
probe, the US justice department added names and indictments as it went along,
but Ayre insists that the same cannot happen here.
"If you're asking
what is going on in the United States, it's clear to me that the United States
is gearing itself up to enter this industry," he adds, before turning the
He now prefers to focus on the opportunities for
online gaming in Asia ("the real market is in Asia, not in North America,
anyway") and his own promotions: he's just done a deal for Bodog coffee and now
sponsors two football clubs, West Bromwich Albion and Ayr United the
latter representing the place from which his ancestors are thought to hail.
So is he attached to his ancestral home? "I've never been," he admits.
Let's hope it's better than Krakow.