Bookies Tic Tac Explained

Tic Tac Men

There’s nothing quite like a day at the races – from the social element, bars and eateries, colourful silks, and of course the sight of the wonderful animals in the flesh, a visit to the track certainly provides a feast for the senses. Then of course we have the hustle and bustle of the betting ring, as the punters enter into battle with the bookmakers.

The excitement of the betting ring continues to act as the epicentre of the course, as the odds flash on the boards and cash flies back and forth. However, the modern betting ring is missing an element that for decades added a rather unique twist to the British racing experience.

Before the turn of the century, those odds boards and bookmaker umbrellas would almost always have been accompanied by a collection of individuals standing atop wooden boxes, wearing white gloves, and performing an elaborate dance routine. Not a day trip from the local institution, as it may at first appear, but rather an essential band of brothers known as the Tic-Tac men.

What is Tic-Tac?

Tic-Tac is a secretive language, largely consisting of hand movements but also including elements of cockney rhyming slang and backslang. Reportedly invented by bookmaker Charles Adamson and his brother, this unique mode of communication is thought to have first appeared at the track back in 1888.

Tic-Tac men are simply individuals fluent in this invented language, able to use both their mouth and limbs to convey information regarding the prices of the runners, bets taken, and pretty much anything else which may be of use to the bookmakers at the track.

The majority of the terms contained within the Tic-Tac “dictionary” relate to the prices of the runners, with examples including:

  • Odds of 9/4 - Places both hands on top of the head
  • Odds of 2/1 - Touch nose with right hand
  • Odds of 33/1 - Cross arms with hands flat against the chest

Why Was It Used?

Bookmakers at the track need to communicate with both their staff and other bookmakers for a number of reasons. One of the most important of which is to signal price movements and large bets coming into the ring.

In general, most bookmakers like to avoid offering a price which is way out of line with the competition, as doing so would likely result in the bookie taking the vast majority of bets for that runner, creating a very unbalanced book. By communicating their odds and price movements between themselves, bookmakers are able to keep their odds at least broadly in line with each other. In addition, if one bookmaker does take a large bet for a certain runner, Tic-Tac is also often used to trade with other bookies to spread the risk and balance the books.

But why use Tic-Tac, rather than simply just shouting amongst themselves? Tic-tac – and particularly the hand signal element – has two main advantages over more traditional modes of communication:

  • Practicality - Racecourses tend to be rather noisy places, especially in the vibrant betting ring. Using hand signals removes the difficulty of making yourself heard over the rabble. Also, larger racecourses may have two, three, or more separate betting rings - often more than shouting distance apart. Tic-tac men standing on boxes are able to communicate between enclosures and are quicker than sending runners to relay messages.
  • Secrecy - When transmitting sensitive price information which may influence betting patterns, it is clearly better for the bookmakers if the punters can’t understand what they are saying – the flailing arms and strange language of Tic-Tac certainly achieves this goal.

A Dying Art?

During the 20th Century, you would likely have found at least a handful of Tic-Tac practitioners at the majority of meetings in the UK. However, by 1999 this number had fallen to only around a half-dozen in the whole country. Fast forward to the present day, and you will be lucky to spot a Tic-Tac man at all.

The reason for this is the rapid improvement in communications technology over the past thirty years or so. The explosion of mobile phones and text messaging effectively removed many of the benefits of the Tic-Tac. The advent of the internet and related electronic communications, automatically updating digital betting boards, and more, then finally spelt the end for this uniquely British betting feature.

As a functional tool, Tic-Tac may now be confined to the history books, but it does still make the odd appearance in televised racing – the sadly deceased John McCririck was a famous fan – but these days is no more than a novelty used to add a little colour to proceedings.

Glossary of Tic-Tac Signs

Of course, on the off chance that a rogue Tic-Tac man makes an appearance on TV, or at the track for those enjoying a day at the races, it is always nice to know what the gesticulating is all about. We, therefore, conclude with a quick glossary on a selection of the most common odds:

Slang Term
Hand Signal
EvsLevelsPoint outwards with each forefinger. Move arms up and down.
11/10TipsPalms together with outstretched fingertips touching
5/4WristPlace Right Hand on Top of Right Wrist
11/8Up The ArmSlide Right hand up Left Arm
6/4Ear'olePut Right Hand Behind Left Ear
13/8UnluckyStart at 6/4, then move to 11/10 Signal
7/4ShoulderMove Right Hand to Left Shoulder
2/1BottleBring your Right Hand up to Your Nose
9/4Top of the HeadPlace Both Hands on Top of Head
5/2FaceBring Both Hands to the Face and Make a Frame around the Nose
11/4Elef a vier5/2 Signal followed by 11/10 Signal
3/1CarpetPlace your chin on the back of both hands

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