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How to bet ‘without losing money’ – and why gambling can be a bit of harmless fun

Fergal Parkinson

Person performing a card trick with an advertisement for an article on responsible gambling and authentication in the background.

How to bet ‘without losing money’ – and why gambling can be a bit of harmless fun

I’m going to share a little life hack with you here – in the vein of how to remove an avocado stone in one go or how to get your shower head really clean. You know the kind of thing.

Mine is how to bet for free. Well, almost completely free.

Here’s how it works…

I’m not much of a gambler, but I do like the occasional flutter – during the biggest of the events of the horse racing calendar, on major games during World Cups, perhaps on a particular match during Wimbledon. I find a bet can make my engagement with the event more intense and it’s a pretty harmless vice as long as I’m not losing significant sums. And I don’t.

This is what I do.

I’ll have a flip through the sports pages of the popular press and look out for promotional deals. Almost all bookmakers will offer these at some point, and at the busiest times in the gambling calendar you can usually find several.

They usually consist of a ‘free bet’ for signing up as a first-time customer.

How this works in practice is that you have to open a new account, place a conventional bet for a minimum sum – this is not usually very much, perhaps a fiver – and then they’ll top up your account with free credit for several times that. Typically, you might get a £30 credit in return for five pounds actually staked.

I then use this credit until it runs out – and then do the same again.

This is how I bet for almost free. Simple.

Obviously, this is not what the betting companies want customers to do. They hope to lure you in as a new punter with that free bet and see you go on to spend many, many times more than their free credit on conventional bets – and bets that predominantly lose.

Which brings me on to the second part of my strategy. Firstly, I never, ever bet just for the sake of it. I wait until I have a hunch about something that, at least to some extent, goes against the conventional wisdom of an outcome that’s broadly expected – ie I only have a punt when I sense that an underdog has a chance of springing a little surprise on a favourite. Or, I might bet on an exact score rather than just who wins or loses.

And then I check the odds: I’ll only back outsider or specific outcome hunches like this with actual cash if the odds are at least 5-1. Anything shorter than that and I don’t bother.

I’ll give you an example. Perhaps the best bet I ever placed was one of the very first: I bet on the then teenage Boris Becker to win Wimbledon in 1985 – while still barely a teenager myself. He wasn’t seeded but there was a big buzz around him and when I saw him in the first round, he looked so good it did seem like the kind of crazy dream that was just possible. I think I got odds of about 25-1. And only bet a couple of quid. But it made my following his incredible charge to the title even more exciting. I was invested.

Compare that to this year’s Wimbledon. I had no such early hunch on a long shot. But by the time we got to the final I was pretty convinced – rightly it would turn out – that the youth of Carlos Alcaraz would overcome the experience of Novak Djokovic in the men’s singles final. But despite being technically the outsider the best price for him to win was barely more than evens – so I gave it a miss.

The point is that if you should – in the familiar words of the gambling awareness messaging – only bet what you can afford to lose. Or in my case as a relatively affluent guy – what you can stomach losing.

So, instead of lumping larger amounts on shorter odds, I do it the other way around – stake a pound or two on something that’s considered less than likely to happen. So, when I win, I win relatively, or at least proportionally, big – and when I lose, it’s never very much; and it’s usually not my money.

And that brings me on to the final point about my ‘betting for free’ strategy: you do need to get the occasional winner. You can lose nine bets in a row at a pound a pop and still break even if the tenth one is for that same stake at 10-1. And that’ll top up your ‘free credit’ and keep you in business.

My record at doing this was nearly four years: the £30 credit I got for signing up during the 2018 World Cup lasted me till the eve of the 2022 tournament before I ran out of luck. Tiny bets placed infrequently, the odd one that worked out, meant I lasted all that time on their ‘free’ money.

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The reason I tell you all this is not to encourage you to become a reckless gambler – but to show that there is a way to become an extremely safe one.

Because according to popular wisdom, the sizable slice of beginners’ luck that my eighties Boris Becker bet involved should have launched me into a ruinous career as a problem gambler, always seeking to replicate that initial euphoric and lucrative high. But, while it’s true that I have been betting ever since, as you may have gathered from the above, it has always been with a kind of dogged cautiousness and on a very occasional basis. The idea of placing £100 on Alcaraz and him losing fills me with dread. So, I simply don’t do it.

Yet if you read most of the material in the media around betting the fact that people like me exist in this sphere might surprise you. Because perhaps more than any of those other traditional vices, the conversation around gambling has grown almost entirely negative. It’s become seemingly tabooed than smoking.

I suspect this is because of the effectiveness of the gambling reform lobby. Their job is to highlight how addiction is ruinous and damages the lives not just of its sufferers but of their families too. Which is all true.

But so effective have their communications become that what sometimes gets omitted in the conversation around betting is that it isn’t necessarily problematic.

At TMT ID, we work with a few gambling and gaming organisations – assisting them in staying on the right side of the rules. They are under more pressure than ever before from regulators as well as campaigners to make sure that children can’t gamble, that those who are spending money with alarming speed are quickly spotted and red flagged – and so on. In the UK, where I’m based, the government’s Gambling Review white paper published this spring only increased this pressure. Breaches led to fines in the tens of millions – and could even lead to closure, so the stakes couldn’t be higher for them.

Thankfully the increasing sophistication of the tech we use and the data that underpins this means we are able to take their customers – new customers like I am when I sign up for one of these deals – from onboarding to actually betting in a matter of minutes without leaving them exposed to inadvertently admitting children or known addicts onto their platforms.

For most participants, gambling is enjoyable and done in moderation. And this recent great leap in the capacity of tech to tie in with regulation means this can become even more standard.

And if you’re canny you can also do it almost for free. Kind of.

Last updated on March 25, 2024


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