I’m not a professional sports bettor by any means, but I like to have a punt now and then. You’d expect that someone playing mostly for fun would be losing money in the process, because that’s the way it works in poker, yet I’ve actually come out somewhat ahead over the years. The reason is that, although I don’t know much about sports, I know a lot about games, and betting becomes a bit like a game once you factor in the various special bonuses and incentives you’re occasionally offered. And it just so happens that my preferred sports betting site, Bet365, is generous enough with its bonuses that if you’re disciplined about how and when you bet, you can take advantage of their various offers in order to make it pretty likely that you’ll come out ahead.

Bet365 is probably not the ideal site for anyone trying to make a serious income from sports betting, as you can find better odds elsewhere, particularly on the exchanges like Betfair. It does, however, have a near-constant stream of bonuses and promotions to entice and keep recreational and part-time players in the fold. To get maximum value from these, though, you have to be attentive when they’re being offered and, in some cases, clever about how you use them.

The Bet365 In-Play Bet Offer

By far the most generous promotion that Bet365 runs is its Risk-Free In-Play Bet offers, which I’ve only ever seen applied to soccer matches, and typically ones in either the UEFA Champions League, Barclays Premier League, or major international events like the World Cup. In fact, the reason I’m writing this piece today is that the next such offer happens to be tomorrow, on Chelsea v. Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League.

The way these offers work is simple. You make two bets: one normal bet before the match, and then one during the match, using Bet365’s “In-Play” betting option. This offers live odds on most of the usual betting markets, which are updated as the match progresses. Technically, your In-Play bet can be any amount up to the size of the pre-match bet, but you really want to be betting exactly the same amount on both. To take full advantage, you’ll also want that to be the maximum allowed, which is usually 50 units in your local currency. Thus, you’ll need at least 100 dollars, pounds, or whatever it is in your account.

The bet you place before the match is a standard bet, which you do stand to lose, so keep in mind that you are still gambling, albeit in a profitable situation. On the other hand, the in-play bet you make will be reimbursed if it misses. It usually takes many hours before this happens, however, so don’t panic if you lose and you don’t see the money in your account right away. You’ll get a message when it has been credited, with the subject line “We’ve given you your money back!”

An uncommonly profitable opportunity

It amazes me that Bet365 offers this deal so regularly, because you could place your bets almost entirely at random and still be ridiculously profitable. Assuming you’re betting $50 each time on 50/50 shots which are being given -110 (American) odds for the pre-match bet and -120 for the In-Play, then you’re losing $2.27 on average on the pre-match bet, and winning $20.83 on average through the risk-free bet. Thus, each time this offer is extended, the site is effectively giving you around $18.50 in free money, although you have to accept a certain amount of variance in order to claim it.

Reading the fine print

I can’t stress enough that when you’re taking advantage of this, or any offer, that you have to read the terms & conditions. As far as I know, Bet365 is the only site offering this particular offer, so what I’ll explain here applies only for offers on that site; if you find something similar on another site, you’ll need to do your own research.

You can freely place multiple bets before the match, and the largest one will automatically be counted as your qualifying bet, but just make sure you know how much that is. Your risk-free bet will then be the first In-Play bet you make, regardless of how much you wager, though you’re only covered for up to the amount of your qualifying bet. So, remember how much you qualified for, and make sure the first bet you place during the game is for exactly that much. You also can’t cash out either bet at any point without invalidating the offer, so if you make use of that feature (which you usually shouldn’t, because it’s a waste of money), be sure you don’t cash out the wrong bet by mistake.

Equally important is the stipulation that you can’t use any offer or combination of offers to set things up for yourself such that you are guaranteed a profit. So you can’t, for instance, bet “Chelsea or PSG” as a Double Chance at -300 before the match, then make your risk-free bet two seconds into the match on a Draw at +240. If you did that, you’d be winning $70 on a Draw and $16.67 on any other result, but the guys vetting your bets before giving you the refund would see what you did and would be within their rights to seize your winnings and even your stake if they so chose, according to the terms being offered. It’s important to be aware of that, so you don’t get burned.

This caveat also applies to arranging betting syndicates with your friends. They’d have a much harder time figuring out what you were doing if you only did it once, but if two accounts are routinely betting such that they always turn a profit between them, it won’t take long before they see this as unlikely to be a coincidence. Likewise, you’ll find lots of betting advice sites recommending to place a third bet on a separate site entirely to guarantee your profit, but this too is against the terms, even though you might get away with it.

Also be aware that Bet365, like most sites, reserves the right to stop offering your the same promotions as its other users, or even stop you from betting entirely if they feel you’re solely exploiting offers, odds differences between sites, and other tricks to turn a profit, rather than betting recreationally or profiting through actual skill and knowledge of the sports in question.

Betting strategy

Although you’re not allowed to guarantee yourself a profit, there’s no rule against minimizing your variance and maximizing your value. There are two approaches you can take for these purposes, either separately or in combination.

The first is what I’d call “partial hedging.” As I said, you can’t bet on “Chelsea or PSG” before the game and then on a Draw as soon as the kickoff happens without violating the terms of the deal, but what you can do is think of the most likely way your pre-match bet could fail, and go with that scenario for your free bet. For instance, if the game remained scoreless through the first 25 minutes, you might start worrying about the possibility of a scoreless draw. You could then bet on, say, “No Goal Before 80:00.” This wouldn’t be a violation of the terms, because you could still lose to a 1-1 or higher draw, but by hedging against the 0-0 possibility, you make it a lot less likely you’ll come out behind; meanwhile, you can still potentially win both bets, if the game remains scoreless through the 80th minute only to have the winning goal scored in the final stretch.

The second, less intuitive thing to realize is that you actually want your In-Play bet to lose as often as possible, because that’s the only time the site is actually giving you money. That sounds stupid, because obviously you want your bets to win, and can’t profit if they don’t. But I don’t mean that you should pick bets you think will lose. Rather, you want to go with long-shot bets that will give you a huge payoff a small percentage of the time.

You can see why this works out better for you by looking at the math. For simplicity, let’s ignore the juice (that is, the site’s take). If you make ten risk-free bets at even money, which come through 50% of the time, you should win five of them on average, for a $250 profit. On the other hand, if you make ten bets at +900, which come through 10% of the time, then you’ll probably only win one, but will profit $450 off of it. Another way of looking at this is if you assume that your bets would be break-even when being placed normally, then your profit through the offer is equal to the amount reimbursed. Thus, if you’re reimbursed 5 times out of 10, you make $250, while if you’re reimbursed 9 times, you make $450.

So, if your goal is to maximize the expected value you’re getting out of the offer while limiting the likelihood that you’ll show a loss, the thing to do is to take a fairly high-probability bet before the match, then use your risk-free bet to take a stab at something with long odds. Keep in mind, though, that with the juice factored in, really long odds bets tend to be losing propositions, so ideally you’re looking for something in the +400 to +800 range or thereabouts. This way, most of the time, you’ll turn a small profit from your regular bet and be reimbursed for the In-Play bet. Once in a while, you’ll hit the jackpot with your risk-free bet and turn a huge profit. Occasionally, of course, you’ll lose both bets, but at least you’ll still be reimbursed for one, and this occasional loss is the price you have to pay to avoid violating the terms of the deal.

Best of all, of course, is if you find a way to combine both strategies. For instance, if the favored team has a strong defense, you might assume that the only way the game is likely to be high scoring is for the underdogs to score an early goal and force the favorites into a more aggressive strategy. That being the case, you might bet “Under 3.5 Goals” for the whole match, then at some point in the first half, bet on the underdogs to be leading at halftime. Not only is Under 3.5 a high-probability bet and the underdogs leading at the half a longshot as you want them to be, but they’re also inversely correlated. That is, because you expect the favorites to adopt a defensive stance if they take the lead, your pre-match bet goes up in value whenever your risk-free one doesn’t come through. That means that your odds of missing both are significantly smaller than if you were betting on two unrelated propositions.

What do you do with the money?

Again, keep in mind that you’re likely to get excluded from participating in future offers, or possibly even from betting on the site at all if you try to wring too much value out of these offers without ever giving the site any other action. Yes, you could grab a small profit, cash it out, and if they eventually decided they’ve had enough of you, you’re still in the black… but that would be a bit like killing the golden goose, in my opinion.

Instead, it’s better to play along and use your winnings to do some recreational punting. Sure, if you’re not a profitable bettor, you’re going to end up giving some of the money back in the long run, but if it keeps the site happy with you as a customer, it’s worth it. Furthermore, you’re freerolling to potentially get lucky and turn a bigger profit, or at the very least having some fun without actually losing much, if any, money from your own pocket.

Meanwhile, keep in mind that these In-Play offers aren’t the only incentives that Bet365 offers. They have first deposit and occasional reload bonuses like other sites, so one useful way to make use of the money you win from the In-Play offers is as a bankroll to play through the minimum betting requirements to convert those deposit bonuses into withdrawable money. Furthermore, if you do enough betting, Bet365 will also occasionally throw a random loyalty bonus your way, though usually only to the tune of $5 or $10, in my experience. As long as you don’t go nuts and punt off your bankroll in between bonuses, it’s pretty easy to maintain a reasonable balance in your account and occasionally siphon off a little money to pay for your beer or your other gambling habits. Bet365 is also a poker site, of course – part of the iPoker network – so if you really want to keep them happy, you can always transfer your winnings over to the poker side, and play with it there.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.