I am terrible at betting. Everyone is. Even as they brace themselves for the government belatedly clamping down on life-ruining fixed-odds betting terminals later this year, Britain's bookies are raking it in.
So when I came across "matched betting" in a sketchy-looking "easy ways to make money online" article, I was sceptical. The write-up claimed that it's possible – easy, even – to extract risk-free profit from bookmakers, and that some people make a full-time job of it. Lured by the promise of easy money, I decided to throw myself into matched betting to see if I could beat the bookies.
Matched betting has been around since the early-2000s, springing up with the rise of online bookmakers. It's since found its way onto places as diverse as the Financial Times and the forums of Mumsnet, touted there as a money spinning free-for-all. The idea behind it is simple: you sign up to bookies and take advantage of their free bet offers. You stake the free bets, then using a betting exchange such as Betfair – which acts a marketplace between bettors – "lay" (bet against) your original bet. By laying the right amount, you guarantee a profit regardless of the result. Usually you have to stake a bit of your own cash to get the free bet to begin with, but by laying this as well you can limit your initial loss and guarantee an overall profit.
My first few bets are straightforward enough. I sign up to Ladbrokes and BetFred, each of which offers £20 to £30 in free bets as long as you deposit and bet through a qualifying amount. Britain has some of the most liberal gambling laws in the world, which is why there are so many online bookmakers vying for your cash. They all offer essentially the same product, so one way of standing out from the 70-or-so other bookies is with enticing free bet offers. I put my money in, bet on – and lay off – some football games, and after a couple of days I'm £40 up.
A miniature industry has sprung up to capitalise on the money available through matched betting, usually in the form of products offering advice and software to help people extract profit from bookmakers. I spoke to Jack Taylor, commercial director of Profit Accumulator, which is one of the two main companies to offer these services, along with its rival, Odds Monkey. Jack had just got back from a gambling industry conference in Lisbon, where he'd gone undercover to keep tabs on the bookmakers. "I don't put Profit Accumulator's name on my conference badge-thing," he tells me. "They wouldn't like us particularly, I don't think."
Jack estimates that there are around 40,000 people actively matched betting in the UK, putting a small dent in the bookies' massive profits. While some people do it full-time as their primary income, he says most just put in a few hours a week to top up their salary. Bettors are split fairly evenly between those who do it off their own back, finding offers and using free services to make a return, and lazier people who pay companies like PA and Oddsmonkey to do some of the legwork.
I definitely fall into the latter category, so I pay the £17 monthly fee to access the "premium" area of PA's website, which seems to have borrowed its aesthetic from the sort of pop-ups you find while digging around the dingier parts of the internet. "That's one of our biggest things, people thinking it's a scam," Jack tells me. "Because we sit between 'gambling' and 'making money online', we're in prime scam territory, so I hear that a lot."
The question is: why do bookies allow matched betting if it guarantees winnings for punters? I asked a number of bookmakers but they all stayed tight-lipped about it. Jack says he thinks it just doesn't hit their profits enough for them to worry about it – and besides, there's not a lot they could do, even if they wanted to. "They have different coloured websites and they sponsor different football teams – that’s the only real difference between them," he tells me. "They need free bet offers as a marketing ploy."
Spurred on by my initial success, I want to make some decent money out of matched betting, so I set myself the target of £500 profit in a month. It seems easy enough, though pretty monotonous, to follow the process and build up winnings. I carry on signing up to bookies and placing free bets, but pretty soon I make my first fuck up, hubris burning in the back of my throat like a sicky burp.
Somehow I bet for, instead of laying against, a game at the exchange, and have to cash out both my bets to avoid the chances of a big loss. Laying games at high odds (which is important for making better profits) requires putting up a large "liability", the money you are putting on your other bet not to come in. This is fine if you're guaranteed a profit, but can result in huge losses if you don’t do it correctly. While matched betting technically guarantees a profit, it doesn't account for human error, and I soon realise that my combination of being rubbish with numbers and susceptible to lapses in concentration isn't a great mix for a matched bettor.
Shaun – who only wants to be known by his first name in case the bookies see this and close his accounts – has made around £15,000 since he started matched betting 18 months ago. Even though he's made so much in a relatively short period of time, he admits he's not immune to mistakes – and I don't think he's just saying it to make me feel better.
"I backed a horse at the bookie and then layed it at the exchange, only to realise that the back bet hadn't been placed," he says. "I lost £283. I think I've probably lost around £1,000 due to mistakes since I've been matched betting." Despite his losses, Shaun's £15,000 haul is impressive, but to get to that he says he has put in around 15 to 20 hours per week, which brings me onto another problem I encountered on my month-long grift.
Matched. Betting. Is. Extremely. Tedious. As I plough through offers to hit my target, the time-consuming bureaucracy begins to wear me down. So much for easy money; it feels like an actual job as I sit for hours on my laptop, filling out details, depositing money, finding bets, laying them and keeping track of it all in a spreadsheet.
Each bookie has different verification processes for withdrawal: email addresses, phone numbers, copies of bills, bank statements, credit and ID cards. One bookie, Bet Regal, even requires "a copy of your identification complete with an official stamp (round & red) and a signature of your legal representative". My winnings are stuck there for the foreseeable; I'm not sure it's worth retaining a lawyer to get my £40 back. I feel wired after pulling myself away after a few hours at the laptop, numbers and score-lines reeling around my head. When I close my eyes the spreadsheet is burnt onto the back of my eyelids; liabilities and odds start cropping up in my dreams.
The amount of money I'm pumping into various bookies and at the betting exchange to cover the big liabilities is also proving to be a source of anxiety. Although my £500 target is arbitrary, I really want to hit it, so I keep pouring money in as my original investment gets tied up between accounts, or lost in lengthy withdrawals from bookies.
"I like to look at it like an investment," Jack tells me. "The profits are your ROI [return on investment]. The more you start with, the higher the returns." Shaun says he started with £500, which he describes as a "decent chunk", and I'm hovering between £200 to £300 invested, just over the profit I've extracted so far. I'd love to say matched betting could offer a solution to desperate people, but Jack’s right: it is more like an investment than a way to generate money from nothing.
I'm taken back to when I was a kid, watching my mum cry down the phone because her benefits had been stopped and she didn't know how she'd pay the rent. Although having something like matched betting to make some quick cash would have been amazing, we didn't have £20 spare – let alone £200 to get started. It’s a recurring problem when you're skint: things that would be easy to most people are kept tantalisingly out of reach.
Shaun says there are people who start with as little as £40 and build slowly, which is possible. If you don't have a timeframe you can start with a small principal amount, withdrawing and reinvesting it each time until the profit builds up to a lump sum. Don't expect quick returns this way – it requires discipline and patience, things made all the more difficult if you're already on a small budget.
Some of the most profitable offers came from casino bonuses, which you can also take advantage of without risking your own money. I made £38 from an offer on Grosvenor Casino, playing through my £20 bonus on blackjack using a strategy table. It took about an hour to rollover my bonus five times, enough to withdraw it. Some bookies, such as BetVictor, also give out free bets on virtual sports, which is essentially computer-generated horse racing with blocky PS2-quality graphics. I feel like you'd have to have quite a serious gambling problem to contemplate chucking money at this. There's no way to guarantee profit on virtual sports, because you can't match a bet on a fake race, but since it's free I don't want to waste it. I stick my free £10 on a horse, the aptly named Free4All, and don't bother to watch the race. When I check my account the next day I discover my pixels had only gone and won it. My pretend horse made me £24 from nothing.
As I come to the end of the month I'm still a little short of my target. I'd been keeping my profit aside for one last push on the final weekend, eyeing Bet365's £100 free bet when you sign up and bet £100. I save it until last because laying off a ton at high odds is expensive and, as the end of the month approaches, my bank balance is dwindling.
I sign up, but it turns out I already have an account with them from years ago and they close my new one immediately. It's annoying, but all is not lost. I rope in my girlfriend, Beth, who signs up instead, and we do the offer that way, the winnings edging me over my £500 target. We'll be as bad as one of those smugly smiling couples featured in The I soon; the ones who save up for a deposit for a house with nothing but hard work and a £20,000 inheritance.
In the end, I made £540 in my month of matched betting, but I spent around 30 hours getting there. It wasn't a consistent slog; I spent a couple of hours on it some nights and missed out others. It's a decent income considering the time I spent on it: it works out as £18-per-hour tax-free, which is the equivalent of a taxed £38,000 salary if you scale it up to full-time work.
Matched betting isn't a get-rich-quick scheme, or money for nothing, but it is a way to turn a profit from the bookies. Maybe I'm not so terrible at betting after all.