Photo via Frédéric BISSON
I’m clueless when it comes to poker bonuses. It all seems more complicated than just free money. Is it really free money? How do I get my bonus? Can you ELI5*?
– Many People Over the Years
* Ace Note: For readers who may not know, ELI5 stands for “Explain Like I’m 5”. In other words, a very simple, layman explanation that anyone can understand.
This is a question I’ve been asked multiple times over the past 10 years. Yes, it is complicated, sites do not just hand over money. But to be more precise, it’s much more complicated than just free cash. NO SITE, and I repeat NO SITE, will give free money with no strings attached.
This question, although simply put, does not have a straight forward answer. As with most thing gambling related, it depends. Yes it is free money, but they don’t just give you the money. You have to earn it. It all depends on the terms & conditions. But let’s dig into it, with some examples, to make the whole process more clear. And so you know what to look for, and watch out for.
Although the question asked is about poker specifically, I’m going to expand on this a bit and cover bonus clearing as it relates to all things gambling. As with everything I write, it ended up turning into an essay, but I organized it with this nice contents box, so you may jump to a specific section. Aren’t I thoughtful?
- 1 Different Types of Bonuses
- 2 Wager Requirements
- 3 Looking into the Terms & Conditions
- 4 So… did that answer your question?
Different Types of Bonuses
Before we dig into the details of bonuses, we should briefly mention the various types of bonuses you may come across. I won’t go too deep into these, but will link to each bonus type if that’s the kind of bonus you’re looking for and want more details.
Deposit Match Bonus
This is the most common bonus you will find on any poker, casino, sports, bingo, or any gambling site. It works like this; the player makes a deposit, and that deposit is matched in bonus funds, up to a certain amount. For example, Joe Casino may offer a 100% up to $500 match bonus. This means any deposit you make, will be matched, up to $500. So a $100 deposit will net a $100 bonus, $300 deposit will net a $300 bonus, $500 deposit will net a $500 bonus, $1,000 deposit will net a $500 bonus, etc. The maximum bonus you can receive is $500.
Sometimes the deposit is more than matched. You may see 200% up to $1,000, or even crazy offers like 500% up to $2,500, etc.
These offers are generally only given on the player’s first deposit. They also usually have an expiration, meaning the wager requirement (more on this later) must be met within a certain time period, usually 30-90 days.
These bonuses are not based on your deposit amount. A $20 deposit or $500 deposit both have the opportunity to receive the same bonus. However, you must earn your way up tiers, based on the amount you wager. For example, Tommy’s Poker Room may offer a flat $500 bonus. So you deposit $20 and start playing poker. The total bonus you earn depends on how much rake you generate during a certain time period. You may only receive $10, but if you play a lot and make it to the next tier, you can earn $40 more, all the way until the full amount is earned.
Generally speaking, these bonuses are worse for casual players as they tend to be very top heavy. In other words, earning smaller amounts like $10 – $50 may be easy, but the bulk of the bonus will require playing a lot of poker.
Much like deposit match bonuses, reload bonuses are simply bonuses offered to a player on their second, third, or later deposits. Joe’s Casino may offer you 100% up to $500 on your first deposit, and then 100% up to $100 on your second deposit.
No Deposit Bonus
As the name suggests, these are bonuses given to players that don’t require a deposit. They may also be referred to as freeroll bonuses, free play bonuses, no risk bonuses, etc. They are also the most sought after bonuses for casual players, and it’s easy to understand why. Who wouldn’t want no risk, free money? However, these are also the most misunderstood bonuses you will find with the most ridiculous terms & conditions. They often come with various terms such as max cash outs, requiring a deposit to cash out, having very high and unattainable clearing rates, or may be restricted to various games.
For example, Stephen’s Slots offers a $5 no deposit bonus which can be used in their casino. So why not, I’ll sign up, create an account, and bingo, $5 is waiting for me. I play some penny slots, it drops down to $1, but BOOM! I get lucky and hit a $500 jackpot! I’m rich! However, upon attempting to cash out I learn the following: The max cashout is $50 and requires a 50x rollover. What the hell? But I won $500, this is a rip off! Where’s my money? Now they’re telling me I can only cash out $50 of the $500 I won, AND I have to bet $2,500 more to do so?!
Again, this is just a general, although common, example and is not a representation of every no deposit bonus offered. There are some examples of good no deposit bonus offers, but they are pretty rare. I’ll probably repeat this more than once, it depends on the terms.
It’s also possible the bonus is given in something other than cash, such as spins, bets, tickets, etc. Those will be covered next.
Free Spins Bonus
A type of bonus, which may require a deposit or may be given without a deposit, that awards free spins on certain slot machines. These almost always come with the maximum cashout condition.
Free Ticket Bonus
A bonus which awards the player with free tickets. These are usually given to poker players and may be given as tournament, sit & go, or cash game tickets. These tickets are similar to cash, because you can use them to buy-in as you would use cash. But they act more as a gift certificate or gift card. They also tend to have some strings attached, such as expiring after xx amount of days of inactivity.
Free Bets Bonus (Sports)
A type of bonus, which may require a deposit or may be given without a deposit, that gives a risk free bet in a sportsbook. For example, if you’re given a $20 free bet bonus at Shawn’s Sportsbook, this means you can place any bet of $20 or more, and if you lose the bet you will receive your bet back, up to $20. So you can bet $20 on your favorite team, and if you win, you win some cash. But if you lose, you get your $20 back and can try again.
These will generally come with a betting requirement, but sports clearing rates tend to be more fair than casino or poker.
Risk Free Bonus (Casino)
Usually offered in casinos, risk free bonuses are similar to free bet bonuses in the sense that they give a player’s bet back if they lose. For example, Joe’s Casino is running a risk free bet promotion of $25. This means you can wager $25 on any game, and if you win, you win your wager. But if you lose, the $25 is refunded to you.
These bets usually have many strings attached such as restricting games or bet type and high wager requirements. They may also be referred to as free bet bonuses, but that terminology is more commonly used for sports bets.
Bad Beat Bonus/Bad Beat Jackpot
A bonus or jackpot given to poker player’s who take a extremely uncommon bad beat. This is usually losing with four of a kind or better, requiring the player to use both hole cards. For example, if you were to be dealt 55, and on a board of 55672 you lose to a straight flush with 89, you would trigger the bad beat bonus or jackpot. Some rooms offer fixed amounts as a bonus, but many other rooms build jackpots over time and award huge prizes. The winning player and everyone else seated at the table usually wins an amount, but the bulk goes to the loser of the hand.
High Hand Bonus
A bonus given to poker player’s who wins the pot with a high valued hand. For example, Joe’s Poker Room may offer a Royal Flush Bonus where any player that wins a pot with a royal flush, receives $50. You will almost always have to use both of your hole cards and meet minimum pot requirements.
Freeroll/Tournament Entry Bonus
A bonus that gives the player a ticket that enters them into a specific freeroll or tournament. You will often see these given to new players to participate in new depositor or new player freeroll events.
Now that you’ve learned the various types of bonuses offered, let’s dig into the fine print world of wager requirements.
Call it what you want; wager requirements, rollover requirements, required bets, earning points, bonus clearing, WR, etc. All online gambling bonuses given out require the player to wager a certain amount to release the bonus. In other words, when you deposit $100 and receive a $100 bonus, that $100 bonus is not yours… at least not immediately. Not by a long shot. You have to earn it.
The terms here vary widely from room to room, so again, always check the terms! We always explicitly state the wager requirements for all of our rooms listed, because it’s very important when deciding if the bonus is good, or worthless.
For poker, this is usually pretty straight forward. You will be required to earn a specific amount of points and you earn points by paying rake or tournament fees. Sports is also pretty simple, it depends on how much you bet.
For casino, it’s trickier. The room may promote a wager requirement of 25x, but then in the terms state that wagers on various games only count for a certain percentage. So bets placed on slots may indeed count for 25x, but bets placed on Blackjack may only count for 10%. This effectively makes the wager requirement 250x for Blackjack. Ouch. Some games may count as 0%, and even worse, some games may void the bonus completely… but more on that later.
I thought it may be simplest to break this down by game and give a few examples of how wager requirements, or bonus clearing, may work.
Poker bonuses are almost never given to the player to use immediately after making a deposit. In other words, the bonus amount is set aside and then requires the player to clear it. For example, if you deposit $100 and receive a $100 bonus, your $100 deposit will appear in your account. You can use this $100 to play in any game you wish. But the $100 bonus will appear under a bonus account and slowly be released into your account as you clear it.
Poker bonuses almost always require earning a set amount of points to release the bonus. The player keeps earning points over time and clearing a higher percentage of the bonus until it’s fully earned. These bonuses are generally released in increments, and do not require earning the full amount before you see some cash. So your $100 bonus may be released in $5 increments each time you collect a certain amount of points.
Earning points varies widely from room to room, but they all follow the same general pattern. If you play tournaments, you will receive a certain amount of points for every $1 you pay in tournament fees. If you play cash games, you will receive a certain amount of points for every $1 contributed in rake. For example, Joe’s Poker Room awards 5 points for every $1 in tournament fees paid, and 5 points for every $1 in rake contributed at cash tables. This means a $20 + $2 tournament would earn you 10 points. Most rooms usually pay partial points as well, so if you pay $0.50 in rake you would earn 2.5 points.
Once you know the bonus amount and how points are earned, the final calculation completes the formula and you can then determine if the bonus rocks or sucks. So, as an example, your $100 bonus that is released in $5 increments requires you to earn 50 points for each $5 increments. This means every time you collect 50 points, $5 of the bonus funds will be moved into your bankroll and can be used any way you please. This $5 of the $100 has been cleared. You just keep earning 50 more points, until you have cleared the full $100. In this case, that would require earning 1,000 points.
Most poker bonuses will have an expiration. In other words, you have to clear the bonus within a certain time frame or the remaining amount will expire and you can never claim it. This is another variable that determines a good or bad bonus. But more on that later.
Let’s look at a few fictional examples so you can see how seemingly small differences can affect the bottom line.
|#||Amount||Points $1 Rake||Points $1 Bonus||Expiration|
Just so it’s clear, looking at bonus #1, players receive a $100 bonus, earn 3 points for every $1 in rake paid, must collect 10 points to earn $1 of the bonus, and must finish within 60 days.
So looking at the above table, the bonuses all look pretty similar. You can see some differences in the amount of points earned, and how many points are required to clear $1 of the bonus. But unless you do the math, it’s hard to know which one you’d rather take. The numbers are below.
|#||Cost per $1 Bonus||Value/Rakeback %|
This means for bonus #1, players must pay $3.33 to receive $1 of the bonus, making the overall value 30% ($1/$3.33). This value percentage is often referred to as rakeback. The higher, the better.
The few minor differences end up with hugely different results. Many inexperienced players may see the $200 offered from bonus #4 and jump right to that. But when you look at the numbers, it’s by far the worst bonus requiring the player to pay $10 for every $1 of the bonus.
If you thought poker was complicated, you’re about to pull your hair out. Casino bonuses tend to be the most confusing and term infested offers usually with thousands of words in fine print. I’m not sure why this is really, but there has always been more of a “shady” vibe when comparing casino operators to poker operators. This may be due to the fact that casino operators are trying to take your money, whereas poker operators make money off the play and are not invested in the outcome. But that’s for another post.
Unlike poker, it is much more common for some casinos to give you your bonus immediately. For example, if you deposit $100 and receive a $100 bonus, you may have $200 to play with right off the bat. This will vary from casino to casino, some give you the bonus immediately, while others put it separate and require it to be earned. I’ve found that it is more common for the bonus to be given immediately.
Since bonuses are usually given immediately, there is no incremental release. You just keep playing and making wagers until you have cleared the full amount.
Most casinos will promote one single number as their WR, something like 25x. This means the player has to wager 25x to clear the bonus. However, deep within the terms, casinos will list certain games that do not fully contribute to this 25x. These are usually reserved for games that have a smaller house edge and strategy involved, such as blackjack or video poker. For example, a casino promotes a 25x WR. This means all bets placed on slots count 25x. But they state video poker wagers only count 10%, and blackjack only 5%. This creates what is known as effective wager requirement. Since video poker counts only 10%, the effective WR becomes 250x because players have to wager 10 times as much. Since blackjack counts as 5%, the effective WR becomes 500x.
In addition to varying rates by game, almost all casinos also state the 25x WR is for your bonus PLUS your deposit amount. In other words, if you deposit $100 for a $100 bonus, you have to wager $200 x 25, rather than $100 x 25. This sneaky little fine print doubles (or in some cases more than doubles) the amount you have to wager to clear the bonus.
So you can see how this would be confusing to an inexperienced player. They see a $100 bonus with a 25x WR and think, “Hey, not bad. I’ll deposit and play some blackjack – that $100 will be mine in no time!” But, as we have shown, it will actually take twenty times as long.
Some casinos use earning points as their tracking for clearing bonuses, just like poker. So as you bet, you may earn 1 point per $1 bet playing slots, 1 point per $10 bet playing video poker, etc. And then once you reach the required amount of points, the bonus is cleared. However, some casinos just ditch the points system all together and count your total wagers. Most casinos will have some kind of tracking in the lobby you can follow to see your clearing progress.
Just like poker, most bonuses have an expiration. Although, some casinos promote no expiration bonuses, removing the stress of urgency.
So let’s look at a few examples like we did with poker. This won’t be as simple since it varies from game to game. But I will use the 3 most popular casino games; slots, blackjack, and video poker.
An online casino offers a 100% up to $100 bonus with a promoted wager requirement of 25x. However, in the terms it says the deposit AND bonus must be wagered, with slot wagers counting 100%, video poker wagers counting 20%, and blackjack wagers counting 10%. The table below shows what this means:
|Game||Effective WR||Amt Wagered||Value|
This means if you clear the bonus playing slots only, you will have to wager $5,000 before the bonus is cleared. Playing video poker, you have to bet $25,000 and blackjack an enormous $50,000. Just to put that into perspective, if you’ve betting $5 per hand, which is even too high for a $200 bankroll, it would take 10,000 hands of blackjack before the bonus is cleared. With a house edge of just 0.50% (one half of a percent) you’re likely to bust long before the 10,000 hands. Make sure to learn the terms prior to accepting a bonus, especially if you are a video poker or blackjack player.
Sports bonuses are pretty straight forward for the most part. They also tend to be more user friendly, clear at faster rates than poker and casino games, and are much easier to understand. Most sportsbooks will state their bonus must be rolled over an amount between 2-10 times. This means you have to wager your bonus amount between 2 and 10 times before it becomes cleared. No fancy points, no hidden effective wager requirements, just betting on sports as you normally would. However, I find that almost all sportsbooks do the little deposit+bonus WR trick, rather than just the bonus, making it twice as hard to clear.
Like poker and casino, most sports bonuses have an expiration, usually ranging from 30-60 days.
You decide to claim a 100% up to $200 bonus offer in a sportsbook which has a 5x rollover requirement. This means you have to wager $100 + $200 x 5 = $1,500 before the bonus is clear. All this means is you have to bet on sports and events, and once your total bets add up to $1,500, you’re done. Sports bonuses tend to have the best chances to clear… if you’re good at sports betting. If you have a winning percentage of bets, it’s highly likely the bonus will clear in no time since you won’t bust. Just keep betting, winning, and before you know it, the bonus will be yours.
Bingo bonuses are very similar to sports as they are simple. Often times the match amounts tend to be higher, and overall bonuses lower. So you may see something like 200% up to $100, which means a $50 deposit will award a $100 bonus. Also, most bingo bonuses are instant, which means you can play with them right away like casino and sports bonuses. If you deposit $50, your bankroll will be $150 which you can use to buy cards.
Bingo bonuses still need to be wagered, and it varies from 3-10 times. Players do this by playing bingo and purchasing cards. If you play 5 $1 cards, you have wagered $5, regardless if you win or lose. The biggest difference in bingo bonuses is players tend to have far less time. It’s not rare to see a 14 day expiration to meet wager requirements.
You want to play some bingo and see a room that offers a 200% bonus up to $50. So you deposit $25, receive a $50 bonus, and have $75 to play with. This bonus states you must play through your deposit once, then play through the bonus 5 times within 30 days. This means you first have to bet $25 (your deposit), then bet $50 x 5 = $250 before the bonus becomes yours. All of this must be done inside 30 days or the bonus will be removed from your account.
Looking into the Terms & Conditions
Here are a few things you want to look for when checking the T&C.
Generally speaking, players can not cash out while a bonus is active. This will usually void all bonuses and winnings. On top of this, some casinos may have terms that state any deposits must be wagered a certain amount of times prior to cashing out, even if a bonus was not active.
I went into all the details of this earlier but the main term we look for here is if the wager requirement is a multiple of the bonus amount, or the bonus amount AND the deposit amount. In other words, some casinos may state the WR is 20x, but in the terms state the 20x refers to the deposit + bonus amounts. So instead of a WR of 20x on a $100 bonus, the WR would be 20x on the $100 deposit + $100 bonus, or $200 total. This is a “sneaky” way of effectively doubling the clearing requirements, while still being able to promote 20x. If you’re playing in a casino, also note if various games have a higher effective wager requirement.
Pay close attention to how the bonus is released. Is it all or nothing, or incremental? Incremental bonuses end to be far better for most players since they’re guaranteed to get something, even if they can’t clear the full bonus.
How long you have to meet the wager requirements is a huge deal. Two rooms may offer the same exact bonus, with the first room giving you just 30 days to clear, while the second rooms gives you 90 days. Make sure you will have enough time to meet the WR!
Some bonuses can only be cleared playing certain games. In other words, a casino may offer a 100% up to $500 slots only bonus, meaning you can ONLY play slots after claiming it.
Some games are completely restricted from bonus clearing. These are usually skill games with a tiny house edge like blackjack, craps, and baccarat. If a game counts 0% towards a WR, you know it’s restricted.
Voiding All Winnings
This one is ugly. Instead of just restricting games, some casinos have these hidden terms which state if you play a certain game or games, not only will they not count towards your bonus, but any winnings will become void if played. These are usually games such as roulette and specifically doing low risk bets like betting $10 on red AND black. By doing this you push nearly every time and increase your WR. Don’t even bother trying this, the casino will detect it and strip your bonus and winnings.
This isn’t a specific bonus type, but is an important term to understand. Simply put, if a bonus is cashable, it means that upon completing the wager requirements, you can cash it out. This may seem ridiculous, and I wouldn’t argue too much, but not all gambling sites offer cashable bonuses. There may be terms that state the bonus is for playing only and any remaining amount will be removed upon making a withdrawal, which is explained below.
As you may have guessed, a sticky bonus is the one most players hate. Any withdrawal made will remove the remaining bonus amount. For example, let’s say you deposit $100, receive a $100 bonus and after clearing the roller requirement, you’re left with $350. Not bad. Now you want your $350 and process a withdrawal. But not so fast, $100 of that $350 is a bonus. This means the casino will remove $100 and give you $250.
This makes these bonuses sound like a crap shoot, but there are benefits. They tend to have lower wager requirements and offer you a bankroll cushion as you’re playing. Just don’t forget and try to cashout an amount lower than the bonus amount!
So… did that answer your question?
I sure hope so! If anything I wrote here isn’t clear, is plain wrong, or if anything is missing, please leave a comment below or contact me directly.
Best of luck!