March Madness betting guide: How to get started without going broke

Warren Buffett is offering another ridiculous prize for a winning March Madness bracket
Warren Buffett is offering another ridiculous prize for a winning March Madness bracket

March Madness is here and that means millions of people are preparing to furiously fill in brackets, hoping to capitalize on workplace pools around the country.

Naturally, self-made billionaire Warren Buffett has set the standard: He offers $1 million a year for life to any Berkshire Hathaway employee who correctly guesses which teams will make it to the "Sweet 16" of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament. Odds are your office pool pales in comparison.

Still, even a more modest incentive can be tempting. But what's the safest way to play? How can you hedge your bets so that you can make sure March Madness works for you?

There's a way.

Northern Kentucky players celebrate punching their tickets to the Big Dance by winning the Horizon League championship game on March 7, 2017, at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

Many internet sites offer match bonuses for new bettors. The sites match half, all, or even double the initial deposits up to a certain dollar amount.

Of course, to prevent players from taking a book's money and running off with it, sites offering such bonuses require a certain proportion of your initial deposit to be wagered before being able to withdraw funds. That's known as a "rollover requirement."

For example, if you, as a first-time user, deposit $100 at popular online sportsbook Intertops, you'll receive a $100 bonus, which brings your functional starting account to $200. But before that $200 can be withdrawn, a total of $1,200, or six times the total of the deposit and bonus, must be wagered.

Other sites attach other stipulations to that as well, including a minimum amount of time before allowing a customer's first withdrawal. These ensure that gamblers are putting money on the line before walking away.

Provided you meet the stipulations, however, the bonus is yours to keep when you cash out.

The bonus is yours to keep when you cash out.

Doing so at the four sportsbooks we polled would mean a cash bonus of nearly $4,000, but it also requires a fair bit of work and luck.

"There are always customers who try to game the system," says John Baron, a spokesman for sports betting website BookMaker. "But it's relatively small: I would estimate less than 5 percent [of customers.]"

Billionaire Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway poses with Creighton Bluejay fans.
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He also points out that books generally only count the lower number between a wager and the payout toward a rollover requirement. For example, a $400 wager placed on a favorite with 1-4 odds would pay out $100, with only the $100 counting toward the rollover.

If you faced a $1,200 rollover requirement, you would still have $1,100 to go before being able to cash out. There's also, obviously, no guarantee that a 1-4 favorite wins every time.

"I think some players will take the bonus with the idea of trying the 'sure bet' approach, but they quickly find out that it's not that easy," Baron says.

For assistance, some bettors turn to paying for statistical insights like the ones provided by sports betting analytics firm Sports Insights. The company follows line changes at some of the largest sportsbooks and tracks historical bets to alert users to potential opportunities that have won more than 54 percent of the time, according to the company.

Considering what it takes to eventually claim the "free money" that exists in the form of a deposit bonus, it makes sense that others would stick to the office pool and just hope they have the same kind of luck Buffett does.

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