Formed as Virtual Holdings in 1997, 888 Holdings grew to become a true insurgent into the world of online betting. What makes the company unique is the fact that it was created by two pairs of brothers, all of whom are from Israel.
Avi and Aaron Shaked worked with Shay and Ron Ben-Yitzhak to launch a website called Casino-on-Net, which was launched in May 1997. The four established the company’s administrative centre in Antigua, moving the Gibraltar in 2003 and launching on the London Stock Exchange two years later, having already created other gambling sites as part of the business.
Owning several subsidiaries, a decision was taken in the early part of 2006 to move most of the companies owners by 888 Holdings under the 888 banner. Within a year, the company moved to buy Globalcom Limited for $43.4 million in cash, continuing to expand the business in the months and years that followed.
This included the announcement in May of 2022 that 888 were buying William Hill in a deal that was worth £1.95 billion. That, perhaps more than anything else, is a sign of how far 888 has come since its launch.
The older of the two Shaked brothers by two years, Avi Shaked was born in Netanya, Israel in the 1960s. Born into an upper-middle-class family, Avi went to the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev after leaving high school.
Located in the Beersheba area of Israel, Avi hoped to complete a degree in chemical engineering. He spent much of his free time working for a telecommunications company, which enabled him to pay off some of the debt that he’d accrued by taking out student loans. He worked in numerous different jobs, including as a representative for MCI Inc.
An astute follower of politics, Avi has long sought to establish peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Indeed, he was one of the main contributors to the Geneva Convention in 2003. Two years later and he decided to run for office himself, running under the banner of being a ‘Proud Socialist Millionaire’.
Though he promised far-reaching reforms and big changes to social welfare, he failed to win election. Even so, he continued to take part in politics, offering the Palestinian Prime Minister £1 billion to sit down with his opposite number from Israel in order to reach a peace agreement.
Though 888 is where Avi made his money, it isn’t the only business interest that he’s had in recent times. In 2007, for example, he worked with his son, Eyal, in order to invest in coffee shops called Chitta Café. They opened up 130 coffee shops in China in the years that followed, establishing it as one of the biggest coffee shop chains in the country away from the usual mega-franchises. Still, his main hope was to establish peace between Israel and Palestine, declaring that the ‘killing must stop’ and begging the two leaders to sit down and negotiate.
Two years younger than Avi, Aaron Shaked was, in many ways, the driving force behind 888 Holdings. Obviously born into the same upper-middle-class family as his brother, for a time Aaron did everything that Avi did.
He followed him to the Beersheba-based Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, studying dentistry. It was just in their degrees where the brothers differed at uni, with Aaron and Avi drifting apart thanks to forming their own friendship groups. As Avi was working in telecommunications, Aaron went around the world, visiting dentistry conferences in numerous locations across the globe.
One of the conferences that he attended was in Monte Carlo, allowing him to spend time at the nearby casinos in between his lectures and seminars. He was amazed by the beautiful building that housed the first casino that he visited, blown away by the rows of slot machines and the amount of people willingly spending their money.
He soon began to wonder whether he would be able to create a virtual casino that people would spend their money in just as willingly, approaching his brother in order to tell him of his idea and getting him to work with him on launching the new project.
If not a huge amount is known about the Shaked brothers then even less is known about the Ben-Yitzhaks. We do know that Ron is the older of the two, born in the Ashkelon area of Israel in the 1960s. Their parents struggled to cope and got divorced when the boys were still young. As a result, the pair had to spend their time between the two, struggling to adjust to their new lives.
When it was time to select a subject for further education, Ron decided to take advantage of the fact that he had excellent mathematics skills and therefore went to the Israel Institute of Technology, majoring in engineering.
In the wake of his time at university, Ron began working for Zix-Av Engineering, becoming one of the company’s head engineers. A keen poker player, Ron would sometimes travel to Egypt in order to visit one of the new casinos opening up in the country. As a result, he was introduced to games like craps, roulette and poker, soon understanding both how the games worked and why it was that people enjoyed losing money playing them in the hope that they would win some money every now and then.
As with the Shaked brothers, there was a two-year age difference between the Ben-Yitzhaks. Shay was also born in Ashkelon and suffered similar problems to his brother when it came to the split of his parents.
He followed Ron to the Israel Institute of Technology, choosing to study computer science. The brothers came into contact with the Shaked brothers thanks to mutual friends, with the Shakeds studying a few towns over and all four of them being big fans of arcade games, playing them late at night with each other.
As Ron headed off to work with Zix-Av Engineering, Shay began his career as a software engineer for a company called Tower Semiconductor Limited. He would often play poker with his brother and accompany him on trips to the casinos in Egypt, playing the same games and leaning why it was that people enjoyed them so much.
The two brothers offered something slightly different in terms of expertise, but they both had mathematical minds that allowed them to enjoy both the gambling and the ability to help the Shaked brothers when they were called on.
The Brothers Work Together
Avi and Aaron Shaked knew that they had a good idea for a gambling company but they had a problem: they didn’t know much about gambling. As a result, they didn’t know a huge amount about the basics of games like poker and blackjack, so they needed to work with people that did.
Having not spoken to the Ben-Yitzhaks for several years, the Shakeds got in touch and asked to meet them for lunch. There, they revealed what they had been working on in the form of a fully-accessible online casino, asking whether the pair would be able to help them develop their software.
The Ben-Yitzhaks agreed, with the four formally setting up a company called Virtual Holdings in 1997. Shay took on the responsibility of developing the unique software that the casino would run off.
Though the Shaked brothers had already launched a website, it wasn’t particularly user-friendly and Shay thought that he could change that. He realised that the casino’s success would depend on it being user-friendly, working to improve both the graphics and the gameplay so that even non-computer literate players would enjoy it.
For his part, Ron tested the software that his brother had developed in order to ensure that there weren’t any glitches. He also spent hours going to every area of the website, making sure that it worked well and was a smooth experience. This led him to discover that the promotions tab would lead you to a blank page and that the blackjack didn’t load very quickly.
Ron was also the driving force behind the idea of offering a brilliant customer experience, intervening each person that the company was looking to hire for a customer service role and ensuring that they had good knowledge of the site.
The Company Evolves
After its launch in 1997, the brothers decided to launch a new company called Random Logic Limited. This offered a chance to do research and develop their offering, with the aim being to reach as many new markets as possible. By 2002, a second online casino brand was launched under the title of ‘Reef Club Casino’, whilst the launch of Pacific Poker saw them move into the world of online poker. The expansion continued thanks to the opening of a marketing office in the United Kingdom, then a year later a gambling licence was obtained in Gibraltar.
In 2005, a decision was taken to go public with the business that was now known as 888 Holdings. John Anderson, the Chief Executive Officer at the time, decided that it was the right moment to merge all commercial interests in order to take steps towards increasing the company’s value. The company’s shares were offered on the London Stock Exchange, bolstered by the fact that it was voted the Best Casino Operated of the Year and the Best Overall Online Gaming Operators. A year later and it seemed as though disaster had struck for 888.
The passing of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in the United States of America meant that 888 Holdings was no loner able to offer its services in the US. The good news that talks of a merger with Ladbrokes were continuing, but by 2007 even they had fallen apart. As a result, a decision was taken to change tack and go on the offensive. They bought Globalcom Limited for $43.4 million, with the bingo company making $14 million in revenue in the first half of the year after the takeover. It helped kick-start 888’s expansion.
The Shaked brothers had stepped back from the running of 888 Holdings in 2006, citing the desire to spend more time with their families, though they maintained their financial interest in the company. Aaron worked hard to help the most in need, becoming an avid philanthropist and working with his daughter to set up a medical supply company. He built schools and funded educational projects, hoping that his children would grow up with the same desire to want to help people. In 2010, he passed away, having suffered a short illness, leaving his stake in the company to his wife.
In May 2020, more tragedy was to befall the original founders of the company. Shay Ben-Yitzhak died in a plane crash, with his 11-year-old son also in the plan. Thankfully, the son only sustained mild injuries in the accident, which happened near to Yakum Kibbutz in the Sharon area of central Israel. Rescue teams were not immediately sure what it was that had caused the light-aircraft to nose-dive into the ground. As no one else was involved in the accident, it was believed that Shay had been the pilot taking him and his son somewhere.