Discover more from Read Max
How I made $3,000 gambling from home
This email is not spam. Well, like, 85 percent not spam.
I'm not a gambler, usually. I don't do well with uncertainty, and I rarely have the confidence to make strong predictions. What I am good at, on the other hand, is taking advantage of loss-leading customer-acquisition offers. Some people have “street smarts”; other people have “book smarts”; I have “rewards-points smarts.” Show me odds on a basketball game and I'll agonize over whether I have enough confidence that the underdogs can beat the spread for me to risk any money on it. But show me a tout from a credit-card company and my eyes will roll back in my head, mentat style, to instantaneously calculate how many frequent-flier miles I can snag just by signing up. Which is why, last week, I signed up for Caesars sportsbook app.
You’re reading Read Max, a newsletter about the future by Max Read. Read Max is independent and supported by reader subscriptions: If you enjoy it, please let your friends know about it, and consider paying to subscribe.
Caesars is one of four sportsbooks — alongside BetRiver, FanDuel, and DraftKings — that were allowed to launch online gambling apps in New York State earlier in January. (BetMGM launched last week, a little behind the others.) All four are offering silly-money promotions to entice new users, but the Caesars offer is by far the silliest: $300 in free money to bet with just for signing up, and another $3,000 of bonus money if I deposited $3,000 of my own cash. You would have to be astoundingly bad at gambling to be given $3,300 in free bets and not emerge with at least something. Yes, if I signed up here, I'd be [eyes roll back in head] rich.
So I signed up, loaded up the app, connected it to my bank. (Read Max readers interested in taking advantage of the promo should read the Read Max Service Corner® below.) I figured that — since I didn’t want to go full Big Brain on this and try to set up a profit-guaranteed hedge bet with another book — the best strategy was just to put a lot of small-money bets on relatively short odds. Because I'd lay bets early in the morning while making breakfast for my son, I ended up putting out a lot of money on on minor turns in little-noted sporting events in the Eastern Hemisphere. Nothing makes you feel like a good parent more than putting $20 on the over for the total number of games played in a Sydney Tennis Classic doubles match and $50 on a tie for lowest score between Webb Simpson and Hideki Matsuyama on Hole 17 in the Sony Open from your phone at 6:30 a.m. while your kid eats blueberries. (I won $139.50 on those bets, for the record.) But my strategy was more or less paying off, so I signed up for the other three apps. At this point, and had about $4,000 total of free money with which I could wager. After three or four days of semi-systematic, mostly arbitrary, relatively conservative betting on basketball, football, tennis, soccer, and even a little bit of hockey, I emerged with $3,322.74 that I didn't have before.
I have some friends who took more and smarter risks with their bets and did a lot better than that. Like I said, I'm not much of a gambler. But in practice, that doesn't really matter. You don’t need to be an experienced gambler to use and understand sportsbook apps, because a sportsbook app like Caesars is no different from any other app on your phone. It pays you to install and use it by offering you services for free or well below cost. Once it’s on your phone you open it and push some buttons; a number goes down, you feel bad. You push more buttons; the number goes up, you feel good. If you've been using an iPhone for 10 years — if you’ve lived off of the promos from Seamless and Uber that once constituted the "Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy”; if you’ve played Candy Crush or Facebook or Robinhood — you've been well-conditioned to understand how sportsbooks apps work.
Usually, as services like taxi cabs and food delivery and stock trading have migrated to, and found themselves mediated by, our phones, their industries have been forced in one way or another to adopt "app"-style business practices like heavily subsidized consumer acquisition strategies. What's funny about the arrival of the sportsbooks on phones across the states over the last few years is that it's not at all a case of an older industry being obligated to change its basic model and conform to the prerogatives of phone-based service businesses. If anything, it's a homecoming: The gambling industry invented "first one's on me" and "I feel good when the number goes up," about 3,000 years ago.
There is, I’ll admit, at least one qualitative difference between old-fashioned, in-person gambling and online betting: fun. Gambling generally also offers a sense of fun, and even glamor, alongside its rewards and dangers. Even the saddest basement poker games are, at least, social experiences: you might lose some money, but you get to spend time with other people. The thing about the the sportsbooks apps is that they’re none of those things: glamorous, thrilling, fun, social. You bet by yourself, in an app that doesn’t work right all the time and is confusing when it does. You don’t even get flashing lights when you win. Obviously, gambling everywhere is janky and eventually depressing, but presumably when you're in a big casino or at an OTB parlor or at the slot machines in a Reno 7-Eleven the jankiness and melancholy is part of the seedy charm. There is no charm, seedy or otherwise, to the sportsbooks apps, just frequent app crashes and a screen that says "YOUR APP IS LOADING, EMPEROR" before showing you a picture of JB Smoove's face.
Not everyone finds this such a problem. In her incredible study of slot-machine gamblers Addiction by Design, the anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull distinguishes between the experiences of different forms of gambling: The thrill of craps, for example, ”depends largely on social feedback” — you know, babes cheering because you’re on an unstoppable roll. But “machine play,” as on video slots, offers something very different: not the highs and lows of “thrill” but “a steady, trancelike state” — a “zone in which time, space, and social identity are suspended in the mechanical rhythm of a repeating process.”The machine zone — not glamor, not fun, not even, as Schull documents, monetary reward — is what slot-machine players are after. Schull’s book has become a touchstone for critics of social media, who compare its subjects’ descriptions of “the machine zone” the familiar enticements of Silicon Valley — the newest variation of a long tradition of using the casino business as a stand-in for the practices of American capitalism in general.
Even if you can draw some clear parallels, it wouldn’t be right to say that Las Vegas, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street (not to mention Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and “the media”) are all identical industries following identical practices. But I think you could say that the economic and affective logic that governs each industry’s decisions is converging. Or maybe you don’t even need to say that, since the straightforward description of what's going on is so overstuffed with metaphor it might suffice: A bunch of international corporations competing with each other for commercial dominance are paying people to gamble in the hopes they become reliant on, if not addicted to, the thrill of intermittent, arbitrary reward unconnected to socially or economically productive behavior. Once dominance has been established, the payments will cease; only if you're particularly good at reading fine print and assessing legal loopholes, and have assets you're able to stake at low risk, will you be able to take advantage of the situation, provided you also have the self-discipline not to overextend yourself. Also, all this is happening on your phone.
The Read Max Service Corner®: How Max Did Something Stupid That You Can Do, Too
What follows is a list of suggestions and warnings for anyone who wants to lift some free gambling money off of Caesars.
Some very important caveats/warnings: Caesars has already changed the terms on this promo once, which means they might do it again. (For a while it was possible to cancel bets and then withdraw that cash as though the bet had settled, but Caesars seems to have closed that loophole.) The Caesars app sucks ass and the helpline seems to be permanently on hold, so if something goes wrong, you may just end up out $3,000! The below information might already be outdated, so I beg that you read the fine print on the promo terms yourself, and accept that Caesars is not a trustworthy business, and this could go wrong in several ways, so weigh your greed against your faith that the New York State Gambling Commission will bail you out if things go south. I also think you should read this Reddit thread on the ways that Caesars can fuck up, and read this Defector story about how this can go very very wrong if you’re not careful.
**UPDATE 1/24: Caesars seems to have ended the $3,000 match in favor of a $1,500 match. Read the terms before you bet!**
Sign up for Caesars with the code "CZRNEW" (or any of the many codes that are floating around online) and make a deposit from your bank account. Some people are being asked to submit utility bills to prove residency, most people I know were fine just signing up through the app.
It might take a few hours (in some cases, a day or more) for the matching bonus money to show up. Once it does, your deposit is listed as "Cash Balance," and your free money is listed under "Bonus Balance."
When you make a bet, the amount will be deducted from "Cash Balance," not from the figure marked "Bonus Balance." Don't panic: Once you've spent an amount equal to the bonus, the bonus will drop to $0.
The reason the app does this is because you can't actually claim any of your winnings from the bonus until the entire amount has been spent. If you try to withdraw early, before you've spent your full bonus, all your wagers will be deducted from your cash.
Because the main balance interface is confusing, it’s better to track how much you've spent of the bonus by going to Account Settings > My Bonus Activity. Just note that the cash won't show up as having been spent until the bet settles, i.e., until whatever you're wagering on finishes.
Let me just reiterate, since this is the part that freaks everyone out at first. If you bet $20, it will be deducted from your “Cash Balance,” and it won’t show up as counting toward your bonus completion in “My Bonus Activity” until that bet settles. This is normal. When your bet settles, check “My Bonus”: it will show you’re $20 closer to completing the bonus. You will need to bet another $3,280 for your main bonus balance to drop to $0, at which point you can withdraw everything. Caesars’ own FAQ about this is here, though I’m not sure it’s very helpful.
Once you've spent your complete bonus, you will be able to withdraw your entire original deposit plus proceeds from your wagers. Caesars can take anywhere from 3-10 days to actually transfer your money once you’ve satisfied the terms; you may need to send them a driver license or bill.
Only wagers with odds higher (longer) than -300 qualify for bonus cash. Remember grade-school math: -200, -100, 0 are all higher than -300. –350, -400, -500 are all lower than -300. Not that anyone I know needed a reminder of that.
If you really want to go for it, you can hedge with a bet at another sportsbook using one of many odds calculators available online. (Here's a Reddit thread with some instructions.) You can also just spray a bunch of relatively small bets in the -200 to -300 range. (This is what I did.) You'll lose most of them, but you'll still win a lot of them, and walk away ahead. Or you can make a couple big bets — it's free money!
Whatever you do, don't bet opposite sides of the same line! Caesars will void your bet. If you don't know what this means, just play it safe and stick to one bet per game. Honestly, if you don't know what this means, maybe don't bet at all.
If you've never used a sportsbook app before, I highly recommend signing up, making the deposit and laying down a couple small bets first, on games that will finish that same day, just so you can understand how the bonus money is tracked in the app.
Here's a pretty useful Reddit thread, and another one. Good luck! Never let it be said that Read Max is not servicey! My only request is that if you make a sufficient amount of money you throw ol' Read Max a subscription for helping you out.
I wanted to tell my friends (the ones who live in New York, at any rate) about what is, essentially, free money, but it's a bit hard to text people about sportsbook promotions without sounding like you'd clicked the wrong link in some unknown DM and lost control of your text messages. "I made about $3k this weekend for free," I texted one group chat. It had been bubbling with conversation a minute beforehand; suddenly, it fell silent. "If you deposit $3000 at Caesars, you get $3,300 in free money to bet," I tried, aware I sounded like a robot. "Are u spamming us," someone replied.
On the other hand, another (maybe not coincidentally male-majority) group of friends barely let me explain the terms before they’d laid out $3,300 in bets on college basketball and NHL games.
This kind of cunning-of-reason conditioning isn’t without precedent: In her study of video gambling, Natasha Dow Schull (who comes up later in the post) writes about the role played by “the growing consumer familiarity with screen-based interaction that accompanied the rise of the personal computer and electronically mediated entertainment such as video games” in the sudden rise of popularity of video slot machines in the 1980s and 1990s.
There is one strategy the sportsbook companies are taking from the tech industry, which is "set money on fire to grab market share and then cross your fingers and see what happens." In general, bookies and casinos are pretty conservative in how they calculate and set the terms of their offers; you want to entice people in, but make it hard for them to leave ahead. The offers that the sportsbooks have been making — Caesars in particular — are so absurd, and so generous, it seems unlikely that they'll ever actually recoup them from new business, no matter how many addicts they can tempt or create. (Andrew Walker has some good back-of-the-envelope math about this at Yet Another Value Blog.) In the delivery app sector, this kind of aggressive, money-losing competition eventually gave way to to intense consolidation. In the case of delivery apps, the effective subsidies came out of the pockets of ill-compensated workers and eager venture capitalists; in the case of the sportsbooks, the effective subsidies are presumably coming out of the pockets of other gamblers.
Which also means it’s regulated like a 3,000-year-old industry: By law, the New York sportsbooks log you out frequently and keep a running tally of the amount of time you've spent using them. Imagine if Instagram were forced to implement those features!
One corollary of this is that slot machines are much easier to take up than craps: it’s not just that the rules are simpler, it’s also that there also isn’t a fraught social component to negotiate.