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Getting Started with Sports Betting - The Basics

Interested in online gambling, but don’t want to do something too complicated? Try sports betting! Sports betting is considered by many to be the easiest form of gambling to get started with. When betting on sports, your goal is essentially to predict the outcome of a sports event and wager money according to what you think is going to happen. When you’re right, you win money. And when you’re wrong, you lose money.

Even those who have no real interest in betting on sports have at least a basic understanding of what’s involved. Actually, the main reason why it’s so easy to get started with sports betting is that you don’t actually NEED to know anything other than the basics.

Now, we’re not telling you this to suggest that you shouldn’t try to learn more. You are going to be putting your hard-earned money at risk, so the more you know, the better. A proper understanding of how everything works is very useful, even if you only plan to bet every now and then for fun. It’s pretty much vital if you want to take things seriously and have a chance of making long-term profits.

We’re not suggesting that you should learn everything there is to know about sports betting before even getting started. While that’s not necessary, there are definitely a few things you need to be aware of. That’s why we wrote this article. It’s essentially a summary of everything we think you should know before putting your money at risk. A lot of what we cover here is explained in more detail elsewhere in our sports betting guide. That’s because this article was created for complete beginners, and we left some of the more complicated details out.

We start by explaining what fixed odds betting is, as this is the most common form of sports betting. We look at the five main components of a sports wager and provide some examples. Then we explain how there are different types of wagers and some alternative forms of sports betting, too. We briefly cover how to actually place wagers with bookmakers, and look at the various types of bookmakers. We also explain how and why they make money. We finish by discussing the importance of defining your sports betting objectives.

What Is Fixed Odds Betting?

Fixed odds betting is the “traditional” form of betting where you predict what’s going to happen and then place a wager on the appropriate selection. The term “fixed odds” is used because the odds are agreed when the wager is placed. If a wager wins, the payout is based on those agreed odds. It doesn’t matter if they’ve subsequently moved or not.

Before we go any further, we should explain exactly what the terms “bet” and “wager” mean. You probably already know, but we like to be thorough. Since this article was written for complete beginners, we have to assume that many of you don’t actually know what these terms mean.

The first point to make here is that the two terms mean exactly the same thing. You’ll notice that we use them interchangeably throughout this article and throughout our entire sports betting guide. They can also both be used as either a verb or noun. Here are a couple of examples of the terms being used as a verb.

  • He wanted to bet on his favorite team to win their next game.
  • She was keen to wager on the game, having seen the lineups.

Here are a couple of examples of the terms being used as a noun.

  • He made a bet on his favorite team to win their next game.
  • She placed a wager on the game after seeing the lineups.

With the English lesson out of the way now, let’s look at the actual mechanics of a wager. There are essentially five main components to any sports bet, and these are as follows.

  • Parties to the wager
  • Selection
  • Stake
  • Odds
  • Payout

We’ll now cover each one of these components in a little more detail.

Parties to the wager

There are always two parties to a sports wager. Each one is effectively taking an opposing view to the other. For example, the two parties might be friends watching a game of football together. One of them might think that the Steelers are going to beat the Broncos, while the other might believe that the Broncos are going to beat the Steelers.

While betting between friends is also very common, we’re going to focus on betting with a bookmaker. So the two parties would be the bettor and the bookmaker. The bettor places the wager, and the bookmaker takes the wager. The act of taking a wager is often referred to as laying a wager.


The selection is basically what the bettor is betting on. Let’s go back to the Steelers versus the Broncos game mentioned earlier. If the bettor thought that the Steelers were going to win, then his selection would be “Steelers to Win.”

Please note that a selection doesn’t always have to be on a team or individual to win a game. There are lots of different types of wagers that can be placed on sports events, which we’ll cover a little later.


The stake refers to the amount of money being risked on a wager. The relevant amount is paid to a bookmaker at the time a wager is being placed. The bookmaker keeps the stakes from losing wagers and returns them (in addition to the winnings) for winning wagers. Most bookmakers require bettors to stake at least a certain amount, known as the minimum stake. This is usually a very low amount, such as $1. Most bookmakers also have a maximum stake, which limits the amount bettors can stake.


Bookmakers offer odds for all available selections. These odds determine how much a bookmaker must pay to the bettor relative to his stake if the relevant selection is correct. They are closely related to the chances of the selection being correct. If the chances are low (i.e. the selection is unlikely to be correct), then the odds are usually high. If the chances are high (i.e. the selection is likely to be correct), then the odds are usually low.

Odds can be expressed in three different formats: decimal, moneyline, and fractional. We won’t go into the detail here, but we do in our article explaining how odds work.


The payout is the total amount that the bookmaker must pay to the bettor if his selection is correct. It’s typically quoted including the initial stake, as this is returned to the bettor along with his winnings.

Hopefully, this has helped clarify things a little. Just in case, though, we’re going to use a simple example to elaborate even more. We’ll again go back to the football match between the Steelers and the Broncos that we mentioned earlier. A bookmaker might offer the following odds for this game. This is known as a “betting market.”

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Denver Broncos

Did you notice the word “moneyline” here? This is a reference to the type of wager this market is for, so it basically just shows us exactly what we’re betting on. In the context of a football game, a moneyline wager is simply on the outright winner of the game. The term “moneyline wager” is generally only used in the United States, as the same wager is called a win bet in other parts of the world.

Let’s say we like the Broncos here. Our selection would be “Broncos to Win.” We’re comfortable risking $100, so that’s how much we stake. We pay that over to a bookmaker and get the agreed odds of +150. These are moneyline odds, and when moneyline odds are a positive number, they show how much we stand to win per $100 staked. Since we’ve staked $100, we could potentially win $150.

There are two possible outcomes for our wager here.

  • The Steelers win. Our selection was incorrect, so our wager loses. The bookmaker keeps our $100.
  • The Broncos win. Our selection was correct, so our wager wins. Our total payout is $250, which is our initial stake of $100 plus our winnings of $150.

Here’s another example. This time, we’ll use a tennis match. Let’s say there’s an upcoming match between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, and a bookmaker is offering the following odds.

Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray
Match Winner

Note the use of “match winner” here. This identifies exactly what we’re betting on. In this example, we’re betting on the winner of the match, which means the wager we plan to place is a win bet.

The odds here are decimal odds, which work a little differently than moneyline odds. To calculate our potential payout with these, we simply multiply our stake by the odds. So if we were staking $100 on Murray, our potential payout would be $210. Please note that this payout INCLUDES our initial stake.

To make things interesting, let’s say we actually think Djokovic is going to win the match. We decide to stake $200, and pay our stake over to the bookmaker. As with the football game, there are just two possible outcomes.

  • Djokovic wins. Our selection was correct, so our wager wins. Our payout is $350.
  • Murray wins. Our selection was incorrect, so our wager loses. The bookmaker keeps our $200.

As you can see, fixed odds betting is very simple. Most bookmakers offer fixed odds betting markets for virtually every sport that’s played at a professional level, so you’ll never be short of something to bet on. As we’ve already mentioned, most bookmakers offer a range of different wagers, too. This is where things start to get a little more complicated, but as always, we’re here to explain it to you.

The Different Types of Sports Wagers

One of the reasons why sports betting is such an appealing form of gambling is all the choices we have. We can bet on pretty much any sport we want, and pretty much any game, event, league, or competition. This gives us plenty of opportunities for finding spots where we think we can place a winning wager.

We can also choose from a wide variety of different wagers to place. We’ve already covered the main one, which is the simple “win bet.” We’ve noticed that a lot of bettors stick solely to this type of wager, but that’s a mistake, in our opinion. The other types of wagers typically offer a better chance of making money.

The problem with these other types is that they’re not as straightforward as the win bet. Some are still easy to understand, but some are a little more complex. To make matters worse, there are different terms used for the same types of wagers. We’ve highlighted this already when we pointed out that a win bet and a moneyline wager are the same thing.

Now, there’s no need for you to learn everything there is to know about every single type of wager as a beginner. We do recommend learning at least a few, though, and we suggest starting with the ones listed below. Note that we’ve included the alternative terms for each one.

  • Point Spread or Handicap
  • Totals or Over/Under
  • Prop or Specials
  • Futures or Outright
  • Parlay or Accumulator

None of the wagers on this list should be overly difficult to understand. We won’t explain them all here, though, as we do that in detail in the following article. We also explain many of the more complex wagers.

The choices we have don’t stop with the different sports and different wagers. We’ve discussed fixed odds betting so far, but there are actually several other types of sports betting, too. We address these in the next section of this article.

What Are the Different Types of Sports Betting?

There are a few alternatives to traditional fixed odds betting, including the ones listed below.

  • In play/live betting
  • Exchange betting
  • Spread betting
  • Pari-mutuel betting
  • Esports betting

Each one of these involves risking money on the outcome of sports events in one way or another. But they all work a little differently. Let’s take a closer look each one of them.

In play/live betting

This is based on the same fundamental concept as traditional fixed odds sports betting, as wagers are still placed at fixed odds. However, there’s one very significant difference. With traditional fixed odds betting, wagers must be placed BEFORE an event starts. With in-play betting, however, wagers can be placed DURING an event. This opens up a whole new range of betting opportunities, and it’s proved to be incredibly popular with bettors.

You can read more about this form of betting in the following guide.

Exchange betting

Exchange betting also uses fixed odds, but there’s no bookmaker involved. Instead, the two parties to a wager are always bettors. One bettor is backing a selection, while the other is laying that selection. The person laying is effectively ACTING as the bookmaker, and offering the other party fixed odds on their selection. If the backer’s selection is correct, then the layer has to pay them out at the agreed odds. If the backer’s selection is incorrect, then the layer receives their stake.

This might sound a little complicated, but we promise that it’s really not. The following guide should clarify everything for you.

Spread betting

There are no fixed odds involved at all in spread betting, and a wager doesn’t simply win or lose. You have to choose whether a particular number will be higher or lower than the bookmaker’s posted spread, and the amount you win or lose will depend on HOW MUCH higher or lower the number is.

For example, you can wager on the total number of goals scored in a soccer game. A bookmaker might post a spread of 2-3, and you must decide whether you think there will be more than three goals or less than two. Backing more than three goals would mean “buying the spread.” For every goal scored past three, you’ll win one multiple of your initial stake. So if four goals were scored, you’d win an amount equal to your initial stake. If five goals were scored, you’d win twice your initial stake.

If less than three goals were scored, you’d lose one multiple of your stake per goal below three. So if two goals were scored, you’d lose an amount equal to your initial stake. If just one goal was scored, you’d lose twice your initial stake.

Backing less than two goals would mean “selling the spread.” Your payouts or losses would be calculated in the same way as we’ve just outlined, but in reverse. You’d stand to win if there were less than two goals, and lose if there were more than two.

Check out the following guide for more information.

Pari-mutuel betting

Pari-mutuel betting is used mostly for wagering on horse racing, but it can be used for other sports as well. It’s another form of wagering that removes the need for a bookmaker, and there are no odds involved here either. For each specific betting market, everyone’s stakes are paid into a “pool.” At the conclusion of the relevant event, those who backed the winning selection are all paid out a share of this pool. Each person’s share is calculated based on how much they staked and how many others backed the winning selection.

Our guide to pari-mutuel betting explains things in a lot more detail.

Esports betting

Esports betting is very similar to traditional fixed odds betting. There is one major difference, though; it doesn’t involve wagering on traditional sports. Instead, those who choose esports betting will be placing wagers on competitive video gaming.

Although competitive video gaming has been around for decades, . Many events and leagues are now televised or streamed online, and they attract large audiences. Can this really be considered a sport? That’s perhaps up for debate, but there are certainly plenty of people who believe so.

That’s why it’s often referred to as “esports,” and like most other sports, it’s possible to place wagers on it these days. Interested in learning more? Check out our guide!

There’s one other activity to mention here, and that’s daily fantasy sports (DFS). Real money DFS contests have become increasingly popular in recent years, especially in the United States. Maybe it’s because they represent an entirely different way to potentially win money using sports knowledge.

These contests involve risking money in exchange for the chance of winning, but . DFS is not subject to the same laws as traditional sports betting in the US, so the argument clearly has some merit.

Either way, there’s no doubt that DFS contests are a lot of fun. If you’d like to learn more about them, please take a look at our comprehensive guide to daily fantasy sports.

How to Bet with a Bookmaker

One thing that we haven’t touched on yet is how you actually place wagers with bookmakers. This is a pretty straightforward process. You simply choose the selection you want to back, decide how much you want to stake, and then give both your selection and your stake to the bookmaker. They take care of the rest, including paying you out for any winning wagers. We explain more in the following article, which includes some basic advice on how to choose your selections.

The exact process of placing a wager will depend on which bookmaker you’re using. More accurately, it will depend on which TYPE of bookmaker of you’re using. You see, bookmakers operate in a number of different ways. There are several types of bookmaker, with the ones below considered to be the most common.

  • Bookmaking shops/betting bureaus
  • Casino sportsbooks
  • Telephone-based bookmakers
  • Racetrack bookmakers
  • Online bookmakers

Bookmaking shops and betting bureaus are retail shops where you can place your wagers over the counter in cash, or possibly with a debit or credit card. After you fill out a betting slip with details of your wager and pay the required stake, you’ll receive a verified copy of your wager. If your wager wins, you can go back and claim your winnings.

Casino sportsbooks work in roughly the same way. They’re just based in casinos rather than being standalone premises. You’ll find them in a lot of Las Vegas casinos, as Nevada is one of the few states in the US where sports betting is fully legalized.

Telephone-based bookmakers used to be very common in some countries, but they’ve become less so since the advent of the internet and online betting. Using these involves making a phone call and providing details of your chosen wager verbally. Typically, you have to pay your stakes using a debit or credit card. Credit accounts are sometimes an option, too.

Racetrack bookmakers can be found at most horse racing tracks around the world. These also operate in a similar way to bookmaking shops. Wagers are placed in cash, and you receive a slip that can be exchanged for a payout if you win. Many of these operations only take wagers for races being run at the racecourse where they’re based, but some also take wagers for races at other locations. Some will take wagers on other sports, too, although that depends on local laws.

We’ve written an in-depth article that is packed full of information on the different types of bookmakers. While the article does include some information on online bookmakers, also known as betting sites, we actually have a whole section dedicated to this type of bookmaker. Why? Because it’s by far the most popular bookmaker out there. Online betting is a safe and convenient way to place wagers, and it offers many advantages over the other methods outlined above.

Why Bookmakers Make Money

As a beginner to sports betting, it’s not exactly essential to understand the intricacies of how bookmakers operate. However, it IS a good idea to understand how and why they make their profits. In very simple terms, they do this by taking more money in from losing wagers than they pay out in winnings for successful wagers.

The outcome of a sporting event is obviously outside of a bookmaker’s control. So how would they know if they’re going to make money or not? If most of their customers bet on the same team to win a game of basketball, and that team goes on to win the game, then this must mean they’re going to LOSE money. They would be forced to pay out more in winnings than they’ll receive in losing stakes. Right?

In theory, such a situation is entirely possible. However, it’s important to remember that bookmakers are not generally risk takers. They run their businesses in a way that enables them to make money regardless of the outcome of sports events. Yes, they MIGHT lose money on the occasional event. That’s incredibly rare, though. Most of the time, they’re guaranteed to make a profit no whatever happens.

Why are bookmakers guaranteed to make money?
Because they’re the ones setting the odds.

This is essentially what gives the bookmakers the advantage over us customers. Setting the odds ultimately allows them to do what’s required to ensure they make a profit. First, they build a commission into those odds, so that we’re effectively paying a fee whenever we place a wager. They basically make the odds lower than they technically “should” be if they were to fairly represent the chances of a selection winning.

Let’s use a hypothetical example to demonstrate this. We’ll say there’s a boxing match coming up, and the two fighters have exactly the same chance of winning. The fair odds on each fighter would be even money. Odds of even money mean we double our money when we win, which is how it should be for a true 50/50 shot. Bookmakers wouldn’t give us even money odds on this fight, though. Realistically, they’d offer something like this.

Fighter A vs. Fighter B
Fight Winner
Fighter A
Fighter B

The odds are just slightly BELOW even money. If we placed a $100 wager at odds of 1.91, our potential payout would be $191. That represents a profit of $91, which is a little less than doubling our money. The small difference is basically the commission we’re being charged. This commission is known by several different terms, such as the margin, the vigorish (vig), the juice, or the overround.

The bookmakers’ commission is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to win money by betting on sports. If we wagered on 50/50 shots all the time, we’d need to win MORE than half the time to make an overall profit. Assuming we were staking $100 each time, at odds of 1.91, we’d lose $100 for every losing wager. Since we’d only win $91 for every winning wager, we’d need to win roughly 55% of the time just to break even. This will be difficult, as we actually only have a 50% chance of being right.

Now, not everyone wagers on 50/50 shots all the time. In fact, very few people do. But the same principle applies regardless. Every time we place a wager, we’re effectively giving the bookmaker an instant advantage by accepting their odds. This is why it’s important to find value in the odds when making our selections. The concept of value is something that goes beyond what sports betting beginners NEED to know, but we recommend learning about this concept sooner rather than later.

Setting the odds also makes it easier for bookmakers to create balanced books. A book is balanced when they stand to pay out roughly the same amount of money on a specific market regardless of the actual result. Let’s use another hypothetical situation to illustrate why this is important for them. We’ll stick with boxing, but this time one fighter is heavily favored to beat the other. A bookmaker might offer the following market.

Fighter A vs. Fighter B
Fight Winner
Fighter A
Fighter B

The odds on Fighter A are quite low because he’s the favorite and expected to win. The odds on Fighter B are much higher because he’s the underdog and given only a small chance of winning.

If a bookmaker took exactly the same value of wagers on each fighter, they’d stand to LOSE money if the underdog won the fight. For example, let’s say they took a total of $20,000 in wagers made up of $10,000 on each fighter. If the favorite won, they’d have to pay out a total of $12,000 for an $8,000 profit. But if the underdog won, they’d have to pay out a total of $45,000. That’s a big loss of $25,000.

Although it’s possible for such a scenario to arise, it’s not very likely. For one thing, more people tend to back the favorite. So the chances of a bookmaker seeing the action spread evenly across both fighters for this fight would be very slim. If it DID happen, though, they’d adjust their odds to attract more money for the favorite.

They’d make the odds for Fighter A higher and the odds for Fighter B lower. This would encourage people to back Fighter A and discourage them from backing Fighter B. The bookmaker would probably then end up with a more balanced book, thus reducing their risk of potential losses.

Note that the bookmakers having an advantage over their customers does NOT mean it’s impossible to make money from betting on sports. It just means that it’s not an even playing field. The bookmakers’ advantage allows them to make profits from all their customers collectively, but it’s still possible for any individual to overcome their advantage and be a winner in the long run.

Successful sports betting requires a lot of hard work, though, and much more knowledge than just the basics we’ve outlined on this page. This is why we suggest that you think about what you want to get out of sports betting before getting started.

Defining Your Sports Betting Objectives

There are two kinds of people who bet on sports. First, we have the recreational bettors. The majority of sports bettors fall into this category, and they’re motivated primarily by having fun. Sure, they still like to win money. Who doesn’t? But that’s not the REAL reason why they place their wagers. They just enjoy the thrill of it and the challenge of putting their sports knowledge to the test. They HOPE to win, rather than expecting to. Typically, they don’t put much effort into making their selections.

The second category is the “serious” bettors. These people DO put significant effort into making their selections. They also tend to spend some time thinking about the strategy involved in sports betting and learning how to handicap the sports they wager on. Their primary goal is to win money, not simply to enjoy themselves.

As a beginner, it’s not essential to make a firm decision about whether you want to bet for fun or to make a profit. However, it’s always a good idea to think about what your objectives are, as they will have an impact on your overall approach.

If you’d like to have a chance of making money from betting on sports, you need to take a very different approach from the one you would take if you were only really interested in sports betting as a form of entertainment. Please see the following article for more information on this.

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