Debunking the great gambling myths: which are true and which are false?

James Pacheco
Author, Betting enthusiast

November 16, 2023

James started working in the betting industry a few weeks before Roger Federer won his first-ever Grand Slam and a few months before Greece shocked Europe’s elite at Euro 2004.

Gambling on sports has over the years attracted a mix of myths and conspiracy theories relating to it, from which types of betting are most profitable, to how useful or useless bonuses are, to whether cricket matches are often fixed. Let’s go through each one and determine the level of truth to it.

Myths word cube

#1 – “After a bad run, I must be due a winner”

Gamblers sometimes apply strange logic to their betting, and this is a good example of that.

A horseracing punter may feel that having unsuccessfully backed 10 horses in a row, their ‘luck’ must be about to change and that on the balance of probability, a winner must just be around the corner.

All sports bets that are struck are independent of each other. Unsuccessfully backing a hot favourite in Race 1 has no bearing on what might happen in Race 4, just like successfully backing Manchester United to beat Newcastle won’t make the slightest bit of difference in terms of what happens in Arsenal v Chelsea.

It’s the same with slot machines. Each spin is independent of the previous one or the next one, so dozens of spins without a win doesn’t mean you’re ‘due a win’ nor does securing a big payout mean that you’re about to go on a lean run as the slot machine takes revenge on you to make up for your recent win.

While luck may play some part in most bets, the outcome in one event won’t affect the outcome of an unrelated one.

What’s worth remembering is to keep your cool. Don’t chase losses because ‘you’re due a winner’ and don’t start doubling up on your stakes all of a sudden just because you’re on a good run. What just happened has no actual effect on what might happen next.

Verdict: Myth. All bets are independent of each other so treat them as such.

Man upset about his bet lost

#2 – “You’ll never meet a poor bookie.”

Some of the best-known bookmakers such as Betfair, Ladbrokes, Betfred or William Hill are valued at tens of millions of pounds, many of them also listed on the stock market.

For the most part, sports betting sites return a profit of sorts. As we all know, odds on a sporting event have a house margin built into them meaning the bookmaker should make a profit on most betting heats. This of course is countered by costs such as staff, rent and tax but even then, a popular betting site with lots of customers, should show an ongoing profit.

But a series of punter-friendly results can do plenty of damage to a bookmaker in the short-term. If during the Cheltenham Festival, favourites keep on winning, a bookmaker may incur significant losses across that day’s racing. The same could be said of an extremely chunky one-off bet that comes good at huge odds, resulting in a liability of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Whereas the biggest betting companies will have the cashflow to pay out and keep afloat on these occasions, smaller, independent bookies may struggle if results really go against them, even though they themselves try to offload their liabilities, much like insurance companies do.

Look no further than on-course bookmaker Gary Wiltshire, who in 1996 lost £1.4 million on the final race of the day at Ascot during Frankie Dettori’s Magnificent Seven, essentially bankrupting him.

Verdict: Some truth, some myth.

#3 – Accas and Bet Builders are the fast way to the poor house

First things first: accas and Bet Builders are very similar sorts of bets. They involve putting two or more selections together and you’ll need all your selections to win for your bet to win. The main difference between the two are that accas involve selections across different sporting events, while Bet Builder selections are placed on the same event, like a football match.

There are two main reasons why there’s an element of truth to the theory that they’re not a sensible way to bet in the long run.

The first is that winning on four, five, six selections in the same bet is far from easy.  There are no shortage of hard luck stories about punters who nailed eight or nine selections, only for the tenth and last one to lose as a result of a late goal, a missed penalty and so on. And that’s your acca gone. There’s no room for error in accas and that’s exactly what bookmakers are banking on and why they love laying them: sooner or later one of the selections will come up short.

But there’s another reason, and it comes down to simple maths.  As explained already, bookmakers insert a house edge into their odds.  Let’s say it’s 5% across all of a bookmaker’s odds. If you place a single, you’re giving away that 5% on your potential winnings.  If you place a double, you’re giving away 5% twice. A treble and you’re giving it away three times, and so on.

In other words: the more selections you have in your acca/Bet Builder, the bigger the potential payout, but the bigger the house edge for the bookie on it. Most punters won’t mind about that when a 5 or 6-fold comes in; they’re just happy to win big on it. And that’s fair enough; if you nail a couple of big accas every year it’s possible that they make up for all the losing ones.

But the truth of the matter is that each payout on an acca is less than it ‘should’ be and the more selections in there, the further away you are from getting the true odds on it.

Verdict: Mostly true. Big accas can result in big payouts but in the long run, you’re giving away too much of an edge to the bookie.

A man and an empty piggy money bank

#4 – Backing favourites gives you a better chance of winning in the long run than backing outsiders

One of the fascinating things about betting is that there’s not just one betting strategy that allows you to win. Different punters will have different ways of betting and the important thing is to find one that works for you.

The infamous punter Harry Findlay, for example, was so confident in Roger Federer at Wimbledon in the mid-to-late noughties that he would regularly bet hundreds of thousands on him to win either individual tennis matches or the tournament as a whole at short odds-on prices. The idea being that while there wasn’t an upset, he’d carry on making good profits given the size of his stakes, even if he was often betting him at just 1.3 or lower.

Other punters see things differently. Rather than betting big amounts, at short prices and looking for a high strike rates (the percentage of bets that win), some prefer to place more bets, for smaller stakes, at much higher odds.  You only need a few 20.0 or 30.0 shots to win to make up for those losses.

One method isn’t necessarily better than the other and will depend on individual circumstances.

Someone with a smaller bankroll than Mr Findlay may not be able to afford such huge bets on odds-on shots, whereas other punters may decide they don’t want to wait too long for another winner and are tempted to back bets at shorter prices like Harry does.

So rather than saying it’s better to back favourites or outsiders, it’s best to say you should always bet based on betting value: getting better odds than what you’d expect to get, whether that’s on short prices or long ones.

And if you think there’s no value to be had on a 1.05 or 1.1 chance, think again. As Harry Findlay himself put it once:  if a racehorse was up against a donkey in a race and the racehorse was 1.05 to win, then that’s a good example of betting value.

Verdict: Myth. The type of odds at which you’re betting aren’t what’s important; it’s getting betting value that’s important.

#5 – Bonuses are a waste of time

Bonuses are awarded to customers by betting sites as a way of rewarding them for their loyalty, or as an incentive to do something. Like making a deposit or placing a Bet Builder on a particular match.

But as with all things, there are bonuses and then there are bonuses.

If a bookmaker awards you a free bet for being quite active in any given month without any strings attached, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t take the bonus and play it. Even if the bonus comes with wagering requirements (see below), you’re still being given something for nothing.

Wagering requirements mean that if you use the bonus and win with it, you can’t instantly just withdraw your winnings.

If you could, betting sites would seriously risk losing money on any bonus they give away. So instead, wagering requirements of say 5x mean that you need to wager through the value of the bonus 5x times through the site before you can withdraw it. If the bonus was £10, you’d need to place £50 worth of bets, sometimes at minimum odds (e.g., 1.8) before you can withdraw the bonus and profits from the bonus.

In the example above, even though wagering through winnings 5x is easier said than done, it can still be done with a bit of luck and skill. Crucially, whatever happens with that bonus, you’re no worse off for taking it and using it.

But that’s not the case with all bonuses.

Let’s say a betting site offers you a £5 free bet if you place a £20 Bet Builder on a particular game. If you don’t normally place Bet Builders, which are difficult to win on anyway, you’re risking money in a way you wouldn’t normally do in order to get a bonus that’s just a quarter of the value of the qualifying bet. And that free bet might come with high wagering requirements, meaning that even winning on it doesn’t mean that ultimately, you’re going to profit from it.

Or take deposit bonuses. A betting site might say that if you deposit £100, you’ll get a 50% bonus (£50) extra to bet with.

If it’s just the bonus that carries the wagering requirements and you were going to make the big deposit anyway, there’s no harm in taking the bonus and hoping you can meet the wagering requirements. But sometimes the terms and conditions of the offer mean that your deposit carries wagering requirements, as well, as soon as you claim the bonus.

So rather than being able to withdraw your own money whenever you wish, your £100 deposit may carry the wagering requirements as well and you risk losing all of your deposit by failing to meet the wagering requirements on it. This is made even worse if your deposit was much bigger than it normally would be just because you were chasing that bonus.

So, it’s not that all bonuses are there to put you on the path to failure, nor is it the case that any bonus should instantly be snapped up.

Rather: read the terms and conditions carefully and decide if the bonus is worth claiming or not, just like you’d consider whether any bet is worth striking, or not.

Verdict:  Part true, part myth. The terms and conditions of the bonus (particularly the wagering requirements) determine whether a bonus is worth taking, or not. Read the Ts and Cs carefully, or contact Customer Support for clarification, if necessary, before deciding.

Pub betting with friends

#6 – Betfair keeps 2 to 5% of an Exchange market’s total turnover

In the early noughties, Betfair’s Betting Exchange model revolutionised betting. Rather than punters betting against the bookmaker, as had always been the case, they were now able to bet against each other. Some customers played bookmaker and laid bets, others played punter and backed bets with the laws of supply and demand determining at which odds bets were struck.

Eliminating the ‘middleman’ and removing the bookie’s house edge meant that backers could secure better odds than at traditional fixed-odds bookmakers while other punters could lay bets knowing that if anyone other than that runner/player/horse won, they’d have won like a regular bookie offering a price in a high-street shop.

But punters didn’t have to be one or the other. Trading- the same person backing and laying bets throughout a match, tournament or race at ever-changing odds once it was underway- meant you could secure a ‘green book’ where you won all outcomes as long as you backed and laid at favourable prices.

A commission of between 2 and 5% was then applied to whatever your profit was on the market you were playing. If you lost, you didn’t pay commission.

In events such as Test matches or ODIs in cricket, big football games or lengthy high-profile tennis matches, it wasn’t unusual (and still isn’t) for the turnover to reach say £10 million. Sometimes it was many, many times more than that.

And not just in sports. The 2016 US Presidential election, eventually won by Donald Trump, is thought to be Betfair’s biggest-ever market, with £200m traded on it across the four years leading up to the election and up to the point where Trump was formally announced as the winner. In some cases, it was punters placing big bets on the market but in most cases, it was the same thousands of punters constantly backing and laying in order to improve their position.

This led to many believing that on such markets, Betfair was pocketing 2 to 5% of that as a result of the commission charged on winning bets. So, between £200,000 and £500,000 just for offering a market that eventually saw £10 million traded on it, which was a weekly occurrence.

This is nowhere near the truth.

Let’s say Jack is betting on a Test match. He starts by placing a £50 bet on India to beat England at odds of 3.0. For the next five days he places dozens of additional bets, some as backs and some as lays, at ever-changing odds.

By the time the Test match comes to an end, he’s ‘contributed’ £1000 worth of bets to the market’s turnover, but his final position is that he had a winning position of ‘just’ £50 on each of India, England and the draw.

When India win, he then pays 2 to 5% commission (depending on each customer’s individual circumstances) on that £50. So Betfair earns between just £1 and £2.50 on Jack’s win, not £20 to £50 on what he contributed to the market as a whole.

Now think off all the thousands of other customers doing exactly what Jack was doing and trading the market. Some of them may have contributed tens of thousands of pounds to that total figure but like Jack, their overall position on it, including his final winnings, are just a fraction of that.

The point is that it’s impossible for us to instantly work out how much money Betfair has made when an Exchange market is settled. Thousands of different punters will have different positions, bet at different odds and pay different levels of commission. It’s only once Betfair presses the button to settle the market and that the different levels of commission are applied to all the different winners that they will know how much commission they made on it.

But it’s certainly not 2 to 5% of that total figure!

Verdict: Total myth. It’s much, much less than 2 to 5% the total turnover of the market.

#7 – Lots of cricket matches are fixed

Of all the most high-profile sports in the world, cricket is arguably the one that has been most often associated with match-fixing, or spot-fixing.

For the record, match-fixing involves players (or umpires) conspiring to manipulate the result of a match as a whole. Spot-fixing involves players trying to manipulate certain aspects of the match such as how many runs a batsmen will score, how many wides a bowler will give away or how many runs a bowler concedes in a specific over.

Sadly, it’s a case of ‘there’s no smoke without fire’. In the 1990s eight Pakistani international players were either fined or suspended amid allegations of match-fixing, including skipper Saleem Malik, who was banned for life. In 2000, India skipper Mohammad Azharuddin was himself banned for life by the International Cricket Council after an investigation found him guilty of match-fixing. As part of the same case in the same year, South African skipper Hansie Cronje also got a life ban after pleading guilty to match-fixing.

10 years later and three Pakistani Test players were found guilty of agreeing to take part in spot-fixing, in return for cash, during Pakistan’s Test series in England. Mohammad Amir, still a teenager at the time and veteran Mohammad Asif, both fast bowlers, bowled no-balls at pre-determined times of the match, while Salman Butt, the skipper, was found to have facilitated the whole thing. That included making sure Amir and Asif were the ones bowling at specific times.

As it happens, the whole thing was a sting operation orchestrated by the now-defunct News of the World newspaper rather than a genuine attempt at spot-fixing to profit financially from it.  But that made little difference to the outcome. All three were banned and given prison sentences. Of the three, only Amir played international cricket again, before retiring of his own accord in 2020.

So, there have been instances of players, gamblers, bookies and others conspiring to fix matches or engaged in spot-fixing. Of that there is no doubt.

But since that case, there have been little or no other cases of it.  At least not at international level.

These are the three main reasons why match or spot-fixing seems to have gone away at international level:

  • International players are much better paid now than in the past as a result of higher match fees, lucrative central contracts and the emergence of domestic T20 leagues where players can travel the world and get paid big money for a few weeks’ work, particularly in the IPL. In other words: most international cricketers earn more than enough just by playing so don’t need to engage in skullduggery.
  • The severe punishments handed out in the past – from fines and bans to prison sentences – have deterred players from doing so.
  • ‘Getting away with it’ is harder now than ever before. The International Cricket Council has an Integrity Unit employing dozens of people who scrutinise the matches themselves and work with the police, betting companies and international cricket boards to identify unusual betting patterns that may suggest match or spot-fixing has been going on.  Players are not allowed to use mobile phones in the dressing room and even failing to report an approach to fix a match can lead to bans, as happened with Bangladesh skipper Shakib Al-Hasan in 2019; he was suspended for a year.

Hundreds of international cricket matches are played every year and it’s now been a long time since a single one has been identified as fixed. So, the next time you bet on a cricket international, you can be pretty sure it’s as clean as in any other sport.

However, the same isn’t always true of lower-level games. With players on far less money, without the scrutiny of Integrity Units, especially in matches that aren’t televised (so can’t be played back in search of suspicious passages of play), it’s possible that very occasionally, it does still go on.

So, if in doubt, bet on higher-profile and televised matches only.

Verdict: There have been many instances of match and spot-fixing in the past, including at international level. But the game has since cleaned up its act for the reasons mentioned above and these days it’s highly unlikely to still be taking place, at least at international level.

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