Betting on the Eurovision Song Contest has become big business, with literally dozens of online bookmakers (and their high street equivalents, if you happen to live in the UK or Ireland in particular) offering odds not only on the grand final, but also on the most obscure and specific of "markets" - from which Balkan country will finish the highest, to whether Israel will beat San Marino in the second semi-final.
Even with excellent sites like Oddschecker at hand to help, it can be difficult to get an overview of what's available in terms of interesting prices and opportunities to make a few euros. So let's kick off this series of three articles by taking a look at the odds for tonight's first semi-final - with a particular view to the insights that have emerged from the rehearsals that have taken place in Malmö over the last week or so.
(NB. In a break from tradition, I'll be using decimal odds throughout this piece, since they're becoming increasingly commonplace even in the change-resistant UK!)
The logical place to start for most people is the "to qualify/fail to qualify" market. Things are complicated this year by the fact that 10 of the 16 songs will make it through, meaning that the odds on qualification for the big favourites are particularly measly - Denmark, Russia and Ukraine will net you a mere 1.02, 1.02 and 1.06 respectively. At the other end, the least-fancied qualifiers are currently Cyprus and Slovenia at 3.75 and 4.3. In terms of movement during the week, Moldova has impressed a lot of punters and is now seen as a near-certain qualifier, priced at 1.2, while Belgium - previously the rank outsider - has moved in to a shorter but still tempting 3.25 following a solid set of rehearsals.
These low prices mean that the real value is to be found in the non-qualification market. For example, Anouk from the Netherlands has delivered a set of low-key, uncommercial rehearsals. If you think she'll fail to connect with the juries and the televoters to a sufficient extent, you can get 4.5 for the Dutch to stay in the semi-finals yet again. Belarus and Croatia can both be found at 3.25 in the non-qualification market - and I'd personally be surprised if there's room for both of them in the final - while if you think Moje 3's outfits will be enough to put off all but the most ex-Yugoslav of ex-Yugoslav voters, they're at 6.5.
Those aren't the only available options, though. You can also bet on the winner of the semi-final - though bear in mind that, even if successful, you won't get your money until after the full semi results are revealed following Saturday's grand final. Denmark is currently the hot favourite at 2.5, and it's hard to argue with that, though semi-finals often throw up unusual discrepancies in this respect - Kalomira beating Dima Bilan in 2008, for example - because the base of countries voting is so different to in the final. Russia (4.5) and Ukraine (5) could be worth a look for precisely this reason - whereas, at the other end of the market, Betfair will give you a whopping 249 if you think Despina Olympiou will walk away with the crown tonight. (OK, OK, I'll try to stay within the realms of possibility here!)
One particularly interesting avenue is the "top 3 finish" market. Bear in mind, again, that songs can often do extremely well in a smaller semi-final then underperform (comparatively) in the final. Recent top 3 finishers in the semis include Donny Montell in 2012, Maja Keuc and Paradise Oskar in 2011, Hera Björk in 2010, Simon Mathew in 2008... you get the idea!
So where might the value be this time? Ireland and Moldova have gained a lot of momentum in the press centre over recent days, and you could easily see either of them sneaking onto the podium tonight. Ryan Dolan can currently be grabbed at 8.0, while Aliona Moon is priced at 5.5 - both quite tempting, I'd say. Among the more predictable contenders, Russia at 1.58 seems like a particularly decent option if you're the kind of person who treats betting less as an opportunity for big rewards and more as a way of getting a return on your money that's better than what a savings account can offer! And even Denmark at 1.22 appears more than fair, since a finish of 4th or worse for Emmelie seems highly improbable even if she doesn't ultimately live up to her favourite status in the grand final.
Finally, a small number of bookmakers are offering head-to-head markets for tonight's show, most notably Bwin. In terms of achieving balance, it can certainly be good to bet on a relative placing that's unconnected to the absolute placing of the song in question. Bwin will currently give you 3.55 if you think the Netherlands will beat Russia, or a particularly tempting 2.2 if you think Anouk will get the better of the Moje 3 girls - something that could easily happen if she eats up the jury votes. Meanwhile, a similar 2.1 is available if you think Zlata and her giant will come out ahead of the earnestness of Russia's Dina Garipova.
Those are just a few of the options available to you if you feel like having a little flutter on tonight's proceedings, anyway. Whatever you do and however much you decide to bet, have a great evening!