What Makes a Good Offer
The fact of the matter is that almost all online casinos have one thing in common: They offer some sort of promotion for new players. Could you imagine going to an online casino that just said, "Deposit and play, no bonuses available here," chances are you wouldn't be on that site very long. Although, if they put a 100%+ video poker game on there that had been vetted by the Wizard, there's a pretty good chance I would spend ten hours a day playing as I wouldn't need any kind of bonus!
In any event, it can be tough to make heads or tails out of online casino offers when there are so many different ones that have so many different terms and conditions. Therefore, I am putting together this guide to get you looking in the right direction with the hopes that you can separate the decent bonuses from the ones that there is essentially no point in playing.
This is not meant to be comprehensive by any means, so please consider it just a general guide of what sort of bonuses that you are looking for, then you can work on figuring out what specific expected profit/loss a bonus may have. If you have any questions, feel free to create an account at the forums and shoot me a PM (Mission146). My only stipulation is that I reserve the right to publish questions and answers PM'ed to me.
Different Types of Bonuses
The first thing that you have to understand is that there are different types of bonuses, even though all of them may term themselves, “Deposit Match,” bonuses. In some cases, the only similarities between two bonuses are that you make a deposit and get some sort of bonus.
In general terms, the types of deposit match bonuses that are out there are cashable bonuses, sticky bonuses and phantom bonuses. If you are playing straight up, then that is generally also going to be the order in which you want to look for bonuses. If you are aware of certain advantage play tricks to turn an otherwise negative bonus profitable, then you might want to try to find some Phantom Bonuses.
The vast majority of deposit bonuses are fully cashable, which is good, because they are also easy to understand. The biggest factors that you have to take into consideration when it comes to these bonuses are:
How much is the bonus relative to the deposit?
What is the total playthrough?
What is the Return-to-Player (i.e. House Edge) of the best available game?
In the case of fully cashable bonuses, the first thing that you want to know is how much of a bonus are you going to get relative to your deposit amount. There are variations, but the vast majority of deposit match bonuses are 100% bonuses such that the deposit is exactly matched by the casino. The result of a $100 deposit is that you will have $200 in your account. The next thing you need to determine is the total playthrough of your bonus.
The playthrough requirements of the bonus are of the utmost importance because this is where you are really going to either make your money or lose it. If a bonus only had a 10x rollover wagering requirement, then that particular bonus could be one of 10% on a $1,000 deposit, giving the player $1,100, and a disciplined player still effectively couldn't lose in the long run. The player could play video poker with a low enough bet amount and just print money if this bonus were infinitely available.
Unfortunately, most online casinos don't do that anymore, so the best that you are likely to get is maybe something like a 20x or 25x playthrough requirement on slots. Sometimes you will find a 15x playthrough requirement on slots, but those are pretty rare and, even at 95% return-to-player, would be a net losing proposition.
Imagine a 100% match on a $1,000 bonus giving the player $2,000 in total funds. The player has to play $30,000 in total wagers through on slots at a 5% house edge, the result is the player expects to lose $1,500 which would include $500 of the original deposit.
Unfortunately, that is not at all an uncommon situation anymore. There are several bonuses out there that are calibrated exactly such that the player expects to lose all of the bonus and none of the deposit after playthrough has been completed, but most of the bonuses that are out there have an expectation such that the player is mathematically expected to lose some or all of his deposit.
Anyway, here is a handy little calculator here that will help you figure that out.
If you put in all of the information it asks for, it will spit out your break-even house edge on a fully cashable bonus. Don't forget to put in the percentage wagering contribution for the game you are playing if it is not slots.
The sad truth is that the majority of bonuses out there are designed for the player to lose, and the player would have arguably been better off to simply make a deposit and decline the bonus, that way the player could just cash out whenever he or she wanted to upon getting a good hit.
The casinos actually kind of flipped the script on what online advantage players used to do to them. Online advantage players would exploit soft casino bonuses and the once mathematically way to low playthroughs for guaranteed profits, this was refered to as casino whoring. The casinos were oblivious to this for several years as there were enough losing players to cover the winners, but eventually more people started figuring it out, or the same people opened multiple accounts. There were some promotions that were such that a player could essentially just print money.
Anyway, the casinos put an end to it. More than that, they used the same tactic against players by creating so-called, "Bonuses," with playthrough requirements so high that the player is expected to lose and cut into his own deposit by the time the playthrough is done. In some cases, the mathematical expectation is that the player will lose his entire deposit.
Some casinos such as Bovada also have a mechanism in place that ties future deposits to a bonus that the player is playing on an original deposit if the playthrough requirements for the first bonus had not been completed prior to the player losing all of his or her money. If you see any casino where this is the case, the simple answer is just not to make any deposits in the future in the event that you do not complete the playthrough on your initial deposit.
Another sign of a bonus that might not be advantageous for the player is when there are bet restrictions. Bet restrictions can accomplish a few things:
The first thing they accomplish is that they prevent the player from, "Taking a shot," hoping to make a huge bet that is a significant portion of the player's bankroll, hit something has fairly high variance for a few times the amount of the bet and then grind out on a lower variance game such as blackjack.
The second thing that they accomplish is a flipping of the script. The casino essentially forces the player to adopt a low-variance playing style right off the bat such that the player does not have much of a chance (except perhaps on a fundamentally high variance game like slots) to turn the bonus money into very much to begin with. The range of results is fairly narrow for a player who has $2,000 in total funds, but is limited to $10/hand blackjack bets. That's not to say that the player can't profit, just that the variance is cut way down with limitations of bets on a negative expectation game in which a player has to bet a certain amount in total.
For illustrative purposes, imagine a game of Craps upon which a player is making a Pass Line bet. The player has a bankroll of $2,000 and, if he or she likes, may put it all on one bet. The player decides to do so and wins, thereby instantly doubling his or her bankroll to $2,000.
In contrast, imagine a game of Craps in which the house forces you to bet $1 2,000 different times. In addition to the fact that this will take forever, winning 2,000 Pass Line bets in a row is essentially completely mathematically impossible (might as well be), so doubling your $2,000, even though you have made the same amount in total bets, is not going to happen.
This is an extreme version of what the playthrough requirements do to a player who is severely restricted in the amount that he or she is permitted to bet per hand or spin. The numbers are simply given the number of trials they are needed for mathematical expectation to take over and the player is likely to lose.
Looking again at our example of $2,000 in funds with a $30,000 playthrough on slots: If the contribution on Craps is only 5%, then the player would have to make $600,000 in total wagers on Craps. Let's pretend that Pass Line Odds do not count, only line bets, and the player is restricted to a bet amount of $5. That player would have to play 120,000 hands of Craps (or make other bets on the table) in order to complete the playthrough requirements.
Usually, the restrictions aren't that bad, but there have been some out there that result in a positively ridiculous number of hands needing to be played.
Therefore, one of the main factors to look at on a cashable bonus is how bad are the playthrough requirements and what do they mean to you? You can hop over to Beating Bonuses and run simulations as to your expected range of results using their bonus simulator, or you can do the really easy thing to do and calculate your mathematical expectation above. It is also worth considering how many hands you are going to have to play because you don't want gambling online with a bonus to become a thoroughly miserable experience that you wish you hadn't started.
If avoiding something along those lines means either not taking a bonus at all, or depositing less than the maximum, (to control the number of hands you need to play to complete wagering requirements) so be it. In fact, a lesser total bankroll can make the Variance on those longer shot bets sufficient enough to turn what would otherwise be a negative expectation bonus into a positive one. It's just that the expected profit will not be a high dollar amount, which is really what the casinos are going for. Small deposits usually have a better chance of yielding favorable bonuses than larger ones...but when a large one does, look out!
When it comes to cashable bonuses, less restrictive is better and more restrictive is worse. The biggest thing that hurts you here is playthrough requirement and then the second biggest hurdle is restrictions on the amount that you can bet.
The final restriction that can be a problem is game restrictions. If the casino will not let you play certain games at all, then that obviously doesn't work because it takes away potentially good situations. For a small enough deposit such that the maximum amount you can bet is a sizable portion of your deposit, Roulette is a great game for beating bonuses. Unfortunately, if Roulette is completely restricted, then there is not anything you can do with it.
Phantom Bonuses are bonuses in which the bonus amount disappears when you go to cash out, so you are just left with your initial deposit and any winnings. The best way to think of these is as a sort of, "Second-Chance," bonus in that, when you run out of money, you still have your bonus funds, unless you lose those.
You're going to be looking at the same thing for something like this, just in the opposite order. The only real way to play these bonuses is you need to make your deposit + winnings a substantial amount (such that it can survive the house edge grinding out the rest of the playthrough and leave you with a profit) and then grind out the wagering requirements and cash out. However, the best value on something like this comes from betting as much as you can relative to your total bankroll. Believe it or not, the lower your bankroll relative to the bet, the better your value.
For example, suppose I deposited $10 and I got a $10 bonus. For this $20 I am allowed to bet as much as $10 on a single number in Roulette. The deposit has a 20x playthrough and Blackjack contributes 10% to playthrough, effectively resulting in a 200x playthrough. That means that I would need to make $4,000 in total bets on Blackjack in order to complete the playthrough requirement of the bonus.
If I bet $10 the first time and win, my new bankroll will be $360. The expected loss on Blackjack, assuming a House Edge of 0.5% (99.5% RTP) and $4,000 total dollars needing to be bet is $20. That means that I am expected to finish with $340 total dollars from which $10 will be removed, leaving $330.
If I lose the first shot at Roulette, everything else happens the same way if I win, except now I am expected to have a remaining $320 after completing the Blackjack wagering requirements.
The important thing to keep in mind here, and this is absolutely key: IF I LOSE, I HAVE ONLY ACTUALLY LOST $10. The other $10 was bonus funds that did not come out of my wallet.
With that, here are the possibilities:
(1/37 * 330) + (36/37 * 1/37 * 320) - (10 * 36/37 * 36/37) = 7.86705624543
In other words, I have a roughly 2.7% chance of profiting $330, roughly 2.63% chance of profiting $320 and a roughly 94.67% chance of losing ten bucks. Even though I lose way more often than I win in this scenario, my expectation is still a profit of $7.87, which is an expected profit of 78.7%, on the overall play.
Again, game restrictions, bet restrictions and playthrough requirements, in that order, are your enemy for something like this. If you an find a decent situation in which you don't have your hands tied there, you will be able to take advantage of a bonus like this.
These are nice, but you almost never see them anymore. Basically, you take a bonus and can cash out your deposit and winnings, but you cannot cash out the bonus funds. However, the bonus funds, “Stick,” to your account and can be used to win even more money.
The easiest way to handle looking at these is by simulation. So much of it is incumbent on the game and how you are wanting to approach it that it is tough to come up with a one-size-fits-all formula for Sticky Bonuses.
The playthrough on these is usually such that you have an expectation of losing the entire amount, and the minimum amount you may hit and cashout is often more than the amount that the bonus started at, so you're not likely to hit the point where you actually have money to cash out with. Aside from that, these bonuses are okay. Personally, I would look for one that has a higher maximum cashout amount than most.
Another thing to be prepared for is the fact that most casinos are going to want you to make a deposit in order to withdraw any of the funds won off of a no-deposit bonus. You'll want to make sure you check that out because if you don't have a credit card and or are unwilling to make a deposit, then you're probably wasting your time taking a bonus like this.
One other thing to remember is taking a bonus like this will often render you unable to take a new player deposit bonus in the future, so you may be taking a bonus with minimal positive expected value that prohibits you from taking a bonus that may have better value later on down the line.
Signs of a Crappy Bonus
1.) Low Playthrough Requirements
The first thing that you want to do is make sure that the playthrough requirements are reasonable. After all, do you really want to tie up hundreds of hours of your life having to play through literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of hands in an electronic table game if you take a huge bonus?
This is even relevant to slot players who may not even have advantage play on the brain. Look at those playthrough requirements and realize, if you hit a decent win before playing those through, you won't be able to cash out until the wagering requirements are done. Wouldn't it suck to deposit $100, hit $1,000, but then give it all back because you had no other choice but to keep spinning the reels?
Personally, I don't play negative expectation games online, (because there is nobody coming into my house bringing me free libations) but if I did, I would want to have the ability to cash out whenever I want to cash out. Just make sure that you understand the terms of the playthrough and that it is worth it to you before taking a bonus with hefty playthrough requirements.
2.) Game/Wager Restrictions
You want to make sure, especially if you're playing negative expectation, that you can at least play whatever you want to play while you're on a bonus. Imagine being a video poker player who deposits a few hundred bucks, gets a match bonus, only to realize that you can't play video poker!
We understand why some casinos do substantial wagering amount restrictions on bonuses, because they have become smarter and do not want to get pounded now like they often did by the savvy players in the past. Even with that, some casinos have the maximum permitted wager so low as to be ridiculous.
The funny thing is that this hurts the players with big deposits (the ones they should want most) more than it does the small ones. In some cases, big players stuck with huge wagering requirements and small bet wagering restrictions are almost forced into a position where the only thing that they can do is lose. We certainly don't want that to happen to any of our readers, so make sure to save your big deposits for casinos with either no wagering restrictions, casinos that have the wagering restrictions at a reasonable bet level or those few casinos who base it on the amount that you deposit.
3.) Convoluted Rules
This is pretty simple, if you don't understand the Terms and Conditions of a Bonus as well as the General Terms & Conditions of the casino, then don't play there. If you think a bonus is really good and you just have to do it, then ask them to clarify what the exact rules are for you.
We wish this wouldn't happen, but sometimes casinos have Rules that are not only hopelessly convoluted, but they also disagree with themselves. You definitely want to get clarification in the event that any terms and conditions surrounding a bonus are unclear. The only thing worse than losing is winning and having a bonus voided because of something that you didn't even know you were doing wrong.
While this was not overly detailed, we hope that it will point you in the right direction of what to look for and what to avoid when choosing an online bonus, or for those who are trying to advantage play online, to know what a winnable bonus might consist of.
We hope that you will be able to make use of our calculator as well as the Roulette example we provided above to look into a few bonuses and try to determine what the value (whether positive or negative) is. Understanding the math behind what you are playing is really the first step to becoming a better gambler, and online casino bonuses, if nothing else, give you a unique opportunity to try to figure out some gaming math.
Good luck finding the right bonus for you and may the odds forever be in your favor.