There’s an assortment of differences between online sportsbooks, but there’s one pretty striking similarity: layout. Every website seems to have settled on a proven formula: listing sports available for betting down the left side of the screen, listing odds for individual games/events in the middle of the screen, and putting your bet slip in the top right corner.

To place a bet, simply select whatever sport interests you that day, then scroll through the available events. Once you’ve found one you like, click on an outcome and it should show up on your bet slip. The amount of money you have available to wager should be displayed somewhere along the top of the screen, under “balance.” Using a number that is less than (or equal to) your total balance, you can then insert a risk amount for a single bet. You can also add more options to your slip and parlay them all together. (We’ll get into the specifics of how that works here.)

In sports betting, the amount you risk on a given bet is called the “stake.” Your “winnings” are the money the sportsbook pays you if your wager is correct. The total of your stake plus your winnings is called the “return.” It’s important to know the difference, because some sportsbooks will only show your winnings on the bet slip, while others will show the ful return.

As you input the amount of your stake, the bet slip will show you, in real time, how much that bet will payout. So, while it is useful to understand how to read odds and how they work, know that you don’t need that skill to calculate potential payouts. Some sportsbooks will even allow you to fill the “win amount” section, and it will calculate how much you’d have to wager in order to win that amount of money.

You can mess around with the bet slip, and add a ton of events to see what your potential winnings could be. If you want to remove any events, just click the “X” next to the ones you don’t want on your bet slip. If you don’t want to bet any of the games you selected, there’s usually a “clear all” option at either the top or bottom of your bet slip.

Once you have found an event you want to bet on, and decided what to risk, simply click the “place bet” button. However, be sure that you’ve filled out your slip correctly, because once you’ve placed a bet, you can’t alter or cancel it.

If you forget which team you’ve bet on for the night’s action, each sportsbook will have a section where you can view current unsettled bets, as well as a history of previous bets you’ve made. However, that history only goes back a few weeks; you won’t have access to your entire betting past.

Downloads and software

You should never have to download any software to use a sportsbook, nor should you need Flash in order to access the website. As long as you have an updated internet browser, and cookies are enabled, you should have no issues with being able to sign up, log on, and place a wager on a game.

There are some secondary features at betting sites that may require Flash or an additional download to access. Most sports-betting sites will also have casino and poker areas, and those operations will require Flash or new software downloads to access. Flash can also be required for extras like live streaming, which allows you to watch games as you make live bets on them. However, that offering is only available for sportsbooks in the U.K. So if you’re using a North American betting site and sticking to sports betting, you shouldn’t need any browser add-ons.

Mobile apps

Mobile apps are available for certain sportsbooks, but in North America, most of these apps cannot be found in the Google Play or Apple Store. The best way to download most sportsbook apps is by going directly to the source. If a sportsbook doesn’t have a dedicated app, their website, itself, will likely be mobile-friendly.
Other than operating on a smaller screen, there won’t be much difference between navigating your usual betting website and its mobile counterpart. The biggest change is that your bet slip won’t be visible on screen at all times. Instead, your bet slip will be a small bubble in the corner that adds a number every time you select another event. In order to view your bet slip and place a wager, simply touch the bubble.

Not only do mobile platforms offer the convenience of betting on the go, but certain sites may even offer special bonuses for taking advantage of mobile betting. You may see offerings of free bets on the first mobile wager you place. Be sure to check sportsbooks’ promotions pages to see if they have perks for mobile betting.

Understanding sports setting

Now that you know the basics of using a sportsbook website, you need to better understand the actual act of betting. We’ll spend the next section explaining how to read and makes sense of odds, and where sportsbooks get these numbers in the first place.

Reading different types of odds

Depending on which country your sportsbook operates out of, the odds will be listed in one of three different formats: decimal, American, or fractional. However, whatever the default format, you will always have the option to switch the odds to your preferred format. The place to change the format is usually in a scroll-down box at the top of the screen.

  • Decimal – Of all the options, this one is the easiest to calculate your potential payout. Simply multiply your risk against the decimal number, and that’s how much your return will be if the bet wins. So, if you risk $100 on an event that offers 1.50 odds, you will get $150 in total (100 x 1.5). That $150 is comprised of your initial $100 stake and $50 in winnings. Needless to say, the larger the number, the bigger the potential payout.
  • American – Also known as moneyline odds, this format puts every bet relative to $100. If an outcome has a negative number (e.g. -125), that’s how much money you have to bet to win $100 (e.g. a wager of $125). If the number is positive, that’s how much a bet of $100 will payout (e.g. a $100 bet on odds of +250 carries potential winnings of $250).
  • Fraction – Fractional odds don’t actually operate like fractions, they’re ratios. A team that is listed at 1/2 odds doesn’t have a 50-percent chance at winning; it’s really a 66-percent chance. The best way to look at fractional odds is that the number on the right is the amount you wager, and the number on the left is what that stake will payout in winnings. So for those 1/2 odds, every $2 you wager will win you $1. And for 7/2 odds, every $1 wagered would payout $3.5.

The favorite is always the team with the smaller number, while the underdog is the team with longer odds and therefore a greater payout.

How sportsbooks set their odds

One common question we often get from people who just learned how to read odds and understand their meaning revolves around even matchups, i.e. when two teams have the same odds for a game. You might expect both teams to be at +100 (or 1/1). After all, the sportsbook thinks they both have an equally good chance to win, so isn’t it fair to double bettors’ money?

Fair doesn’t enter into the discussion, unfortunately.

In even matchups, both teams will be at -105 or -110 (roughly 10/11 or 1.85), depending on the site; but no matter what, sportsbooks don’t offer the true odds as that would result in a one-for-one payout, and that wouldn’t generate them a profit. Instead, bookmakers overround, so the total percentage of possible outcomes if greater than 100%. Using these extra percentages, bookmakers make their cut, also known as the “vigorish,” or “vig” for short.

For example, when the Super Bowl rolls around, you’ll be able to bet on the pre-game coin toss, which is a 50/50 proposition. Both heads and tails will have -110 odds, meaning you have to bet $110 to win $100. If two people bet $100 on opposite sides, the bookmaker will pay the winner using $100 of the $110 that was bet on tails, and pocket the remaining $10 for itself. That $10 made on a wager of $110 means the vig is 9.09%.

In real life, the numbers never work out that cleanly, but the theory remains the same, and that’s why bookmakers will always be aiming to get even money on both sides of a bet. There is no risk to them that way. They simply pay the winners from the money bet by the losers and pocket the vig.

However, if a lot more money is being bet on heads than tails, the sportsbook is at risk of losing money. If heads wins, the book won’t have enough money from the tails bettors to pay out the heads bettors. (If tails wins, the book will get a windfall, but they’d rather have the safety of a smaller, guaranteed profit.) That’s why, in such circumstances, sportsbooks will shorten head’s odds to -120, and increase the odds for tails proportionately to +100; this will make future bettors more likely to put money on tails, reducing the sportsbook’s risk while keeping the overround percentages near the same.

When the odds shift based on demand, that’s called a “line move” or “line shift.” These often occur often in the lead up to an event. A team you want to bet could be +200 one day, and move down to +150 the next, making timing an important part of sports betting. Whatever the odds are when you place your wager, that’s what the book will use to calculate your payout. If a team is +120 when you place a bet, but moves down to -110 by game-time, your bet will payout as though they are still +120 underdogs.

When it comes to actually placing your bet, you’ll have the opportunity to put money down from the moment the lines are released right up until the game actually commences. Although a basketball game may say the start time is 7:00 PM, for example, there are pregame introductions and anthems that push tip-off back a few minutes, and the online betting window remains open until the ball is first tossed in the air. The same goes for every other sport: you can place bets right up until kickoff/puck drop/first pitch. (In some cases, you can even place them after. That’s a more advanced topic, known as “live betting,” which we get into explaining the details of making in-game bets.

For the most part, lines will only be unavailable in the lead up to a game if injury concerns exist around key players and their statuses have yet to be determined. Take, for example, Michael Jordan’s famous “Flu Game” back in 1997. The Bulls would’ve been favored over the Jazz when the line was released, but once news broke that MJ’s status was in doubt that morning, the line would’ve closed. Jordan was so important that, without him, Utah would become the betting favorites. But as long as Jordan’s status was TBD, sportsbooks would not post their odds. They couldn’t post one line that reflected two drastically different futures.

Sportsbooks, at their own discretion, can rule a game “no action” after the betting window has closed. No action is basically deciding the bets never took place, and every wager is returned. This ruling is mostly reserved for games that are postponed or rained out. No action can also be ruled when a golfer withdraws from a tournament, however each sportsbook has a different policy on occurrences like that, so be sure to find out how yours handles such situations before you place a wager.

When it comes to finally placing a wager, each individual game and season offers a variety of bets you can place. Here’s our rundown of all of the potential bets you can make at an online sportsbook.