Confessions of a Bonus HunterOur cloak-and-dagger man lifts the lid on the shady practise of “bonus bagging”, a lucrative way to strike back at the online gaming operators.
It all started six or seven years ago with a promotional CD that dropped through the letterbox, advertising the casino gaming website of a major UK betting operator. I had always liked a bet, and had worked in the industry for a while, but when I saw the growth in online casinos, I treated it with caution. I knew that casino games of any kind couldn’t be beaten, and the online versions were likely to be faster and even more expensive. Once I took a cursory look at the CD blurb however, I started to think.
The letter with the CD said that I could have a £25 free bonus if I invested £25 of my own money. Instead of just throwing the whole thing in the bin, I wondered if I could just buy in for £25 and cash out for £50—it seemed that simple. A look at the terms and conditions torpedoed that idea, however, as there was a “play requirement” to stake £500 before the bonus would be available to cash out. I knew a little bit about casino gaming, however, and started to do the sums. The “edge” on blackjack, for example, was certainly less than one percent, so in theory in playing £500 through the game, I’d lose on average less than £5, leaving me with £20 in profit to cash out. Seemed simple enough.
With fear and trepidation I uploaded the CD on my hideously slow dial-up connection, and whipped out my debit card to do the necessary, at least somewhat safe in the knowledge that the casino proprietor was and is a very respectable company. After printing out a perfect blackjack strategy sheet, I started to play at £1 per hand, noting down how much I’d staked. In typical fashion, my results were up and down, and sure enough once I’d ploughed through £500 of wagering I had a balance of £44, showing a profit of £19. Result !
This started me thinking that maybe other sites offered the same kind of bonuses. A feverish night of research followed, at the end of which I came to the startling conclusion that there was an awful lot of apparently free money out there. As I fondly remember, there were bonuses to the value of around £400 available every month on a repeating basis from six or seven major gambling firms, and the wagering requirements were no more stringent than that offered by the first scenario. I couldn’t believe it.
Over the next few weeks my operation grew bigger and bigger. I played all the monthly bonuses without fail, and a little wider research revealed that there were literally hundreds of internet casinos out there, most of which offered some sort of one-off introductory bonus. At this point I started to see the trickier side of the whole operation, with some online casino operators offering bonuses that could only be played on their slots games, which bore an edge so large that there was no value to be had. Outside of these, though, there were still dozens of workable bonuses to take on, and that winter became a frenzy of buying in, playing and cashing out.
Raking it in
My operation became more and more sophisticated: the tally sheet became a hand-held clicker, the stakes went from £1 per hand up to £5 to speed things up, and a specific gaming bank account and Neteller account were needed to help keep track of things and play in dollars respectively. Not every bonus worked out as a positive; I clearly remember losing £150 in the early days on a small bonus from one operator, and worrying that the casino was fixed. But the reverse run of luck also popped up at times to reassure me that natural variance was to blame.
My income at this point was averaging at least £800 per month from this caper, and there were more and more offers popping up as operators fought to grab market share by offering more highly advertised bonuses. As I researched more and more, information-sharing sites began to pop up, and it became clear that I wasn’t the only person engaged in this “bonus bagging”. Obviously once things started to go a little more public, it meant that there was going to be a time limit on the opportunities available, and a couple of incidents underlined this fact.
The rumour went that someone appeared on live Danish TV talking about the money they could make from the casino bonuses, and naturally everyone in Denmark started jumping on the bandwagon, leading to the slightly surreal fact that no-one from Denmark became eligible for bonuses from most of the online operators, joining those in China for presumably similar abuse. Tales of people recruiting family members, friends and colleagues and playing in their names began to surface, a highly dubious and arguably illegal practise, and time was running out.
As these restrictions became tighter, the bonuses themselves changed. The wagering requirements were headed up, so instead of having to wager 20 times the bonus, it would be 40 or 60. This was still workable on blackjack, but cut down the expected win. By now there were at least two websites dedicated to telling everyone how to work these bonuses and any new offers, so clearly the end was near. A major change was evidently just around the corner, and it came with the widespread banning of blackjack as an option to work through the wagering requirement, excluding the lowest-edged game and eliminating most amateur “baggers” at a stroke.
Working the System
Thus began the last real period of opportunity. As many people ducked out of the game, the casino operators noticeably relaxed a little in terms of hunting people down and barring them, a process which happened to me a few times, along with plenty of instances of being denied future bonus entitlements. But there was a glimmer of light.
In disallowing blackjack as a possible game, the operators thought they’d fired the silver bullet, but there were other options. Video poker has a very low house edge, depending on the exact version you are playing, and I’d been granted an extra life to resume activities for a while. Video Poker as a game is very volatile, with the biggest prize paying 800 times the stake placed, so results tended to be a long run of small wins or losses, with a massive win every now and again when the holy grail of a royal flush appeared. In fact, on one of the forum websites was a page for people proudly displaying their big hits, including several £4,000 or £8,000 strikes. One or two sites also offered bonuses playable on a variety of unfamiliar games such as the arcane Texas Hold 'em Shootout, but with a little research it became clear that the bonuses were beatable in some instances, with the investment of a little time.
If we fast forward to around mid 2007, there were still a number of weekly bonuses still to aim at. A scattering of lucrative £70 per week video poker offers could be attacked, and there were some “loss rebate” offers around that could be worked, albeit in an extremely volatile way. But it was around then that the hammer fell with the most wonderful “old faithful” VP bonus, which had been making me a lot of money for years, was withdrawn by the operator—a black day indeed. The last worthwhile options were withdrawn shortly afterward, and since then there is virtually nothing left—other than upward of £20,000 in my bank account that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
The operators are all clued up these days, and will very rarely offer a bonus with any value available. It was always going to end up this way, after the scramble to win market share and capture new players had died down into a more stable marketplace. The good thing for the regular online player is that virtually all remaining operators are reputable and can be trusted both with your money and to run a fair game. Years ago I was turned over by a couple of fly-by-night operators who never paid me my winnings back, but that was all part of the game. The industry is worth a frightening amount of money these days, and it’s nice to have had a chance to share in some of the success. The opportunities that existed will never be repeated, but in any market where there’s serious money to be made by the operators, cracks can appear where sharpsters can make a buck.