Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Beginners Guide to Sports Betting


Vegas during the heart of summer is like a beast whose heat tendrils wind into your nostrils, delve deep into your lungs, and devour them like morsels of meat. I love it. I love the jolt of chilled air when you duck into a casino to find relief. I love the parade along the Strip of lobster-skin tourists in their sun visors and clutching their souvenir yards of saccharine pina coladas and margaritas. I love the Angelenos, with their stunner shades and their $200 jeans, who treat Vegas as just another alternative to the Hollywood club scene. And, of course, I love the gambling, in its myriad forms. I remember once dropping an entire paycheck over one hazy weekend. Unfortunately, my employer at the time paid us once a month, and we had just been paid for that month the Friday I drove out with some friends. I started at the blackjack tables, worked my way to craps, even played keno in the wee hours of Saturday morning, then on Sunday found myself nodding off in the sports book. By Monday, I was without money for rent or food for the month and my body was destroyed from the abuse I had heaped upon it from lack of sleep, alcohol, dehydration, and large volumes of secondhand smoke inhalation. The rest of the month I subsisted on the generosity of friends and a diet of one plain bagel a day. I still relate that weekend as a fond memory of Vegas.

Another time, a few friends and I drove into Vegas just for the day, to bet an entire Sunday's worth of NFL games. At the time I had a tendency to base my bets on random criteria, such as a southern team will always beat a northern team. I placed 6 or 7 bets for the day's games. My friend took a look at my picks and noted I picked all visiting teams. He promptly went to the counter and bet the same games except he reversed every one, basically hedging that I was wrong on all counts. He turned out to be right. He bought me dinner at least.

These days, my Vegas ventures tend not to be so disastrous. I've become a bettor as opposed to a gambler. The difference is one of mindset. I go now, not with a budget of how much I can afford to lose, but rather what is my strategy for leaving with more money than I came with. I've widdled my risks to two types of bets: poker and sports. Poker requires you be of fairly sharp mind so my being "under the influence" is much less than it was in the early days. And sports betting also requires a bit of diligence in making a smart bet so I save the carousing for during the games, when my money's already committed.

How does all this matter? It provides background into the mind of someone who finds pleasure in gambling. There is plenty of literature on the detrimental effects of gambling addiction (Gamblers Anonymous). I think it's only fair to provide a perspective of healthy gambling, that there is as much valid recreation in placing a few bets during the season as there is in spending time at the golf course. We are inherently creatures of risk. We seek it to make life more interesting, to add zest to a safe but mostly sedate existence. That's the only explanation I can think of for sky-diving, wreckless driving, and eating with your hands.

The first thing to understand about sports betting in a casino is that the casino never loses; you can beat the casino but it never loses. There are a number of reasons for this but mostly it has to do with the fact that the number of stupid gamblers far outweigh the number of smart gamblers. Professional gamblers probably spend more time studying and preparing their bets than most people at their 9-5. They spend endless hours building databases, studying injury reports, histories of teams against particular opponents, playing surface, emotional build-up, weather, etc. The minutiae of statistics investigated would drive a mathematician bonkers. But that's what gambling professionally entails because the casino (the house) has an army lined up doing the same sort of research to ensure the house never goes broke.

When you bet on a game, regardless of sport, there is almost always a favorite and an underdog; rarely do you see a coin-toss situation. High scoring sports, such as football and basketball, will usually have a spread, whereas low scoring sports, like baseball and soccer, will have a money line. A spread is the margin of victory a favored team will outscore the underdog by. So, in a football game, if the San Diego Chargers are favored to win by two touchdowns over the Oakland Raiders, then the spread will be SD Chargers -14 and the Oakland Raiders +14. A money line example would be the LA Dodgers are favored over the St. Louis Cardinals so the Dodgers would be -120 and the Cardinals would be +110. That means if you bet on the Dodgers to win, then you have to pay $120 to win $100. If you bet the Cards to win, then it's $100 to win $110, because they're the underdog. The difference in the money line depends on how favored the favorite team is to win. If a team is a huge favorite, then the money line will have a bigger margin between the favorite and the underdog. On occasions when both teams are perceived as equal, those betting situations are called Pick 'ems, and those are always -110 for either team. That's because the house requires its 10%. You bet $110 to win $100. This is why the house never loses. It sets, and moves the lines or spreads when necessary, to balance the betting on both sides. This way, no matter which team wins or loses, the house gets its 10% (called the vigorish or juice) of all bets. One common misconception of most bettors is that the spread or the line for a particular matchup has to do with what the oddsmakers believe will be the outcome of scoring. Not at all. Oddsmakers create their odds based on where they believe bettors will be evenly split on both sides. That's why a point spread will go from 7 points to 7 1/2 points from one day to the next. Maybe a bettor has placed an unusually large bet on the favorite so the house has to add a half point to the spread to get more bettors to bet on the underdog, or the house sees that too much money is bet on one side so it moves the line to balance the action.

You can get a doctorate with the amount of research required to make the right bet. And forget about finding a great resource for sports betting. Successful sports bettors don't reveal their techniques because to do so would make those techniques ineffective. The fact that odds are based on market perceptions means that if the market became self-aware, it would skew the odds accordingly. Professional gamblers jealously guard the knowledge that make them long-term winners.

So, how do you win at sports betting?

I've come up with some basic guidelines for betting sports. They mostly relate to football since that's where I place my bets but I think they're applicable to most sports betting situations.

The rules of betting on sports:

1. Bet among friends or acquaintances. If you have a friend who attended Central Michigan and their team is playing the Florida Gators in the Swamp, then figure out some way to bet against them. Most die-hard alumnus will give you even money on their team to whup even a heavily favored opponent. Even if you should somehow lose, in the long run this friend will be paying you off for years. Obversely, if you attended a school that is playing in a game you're thinking about betting, don't bet. You'll just agonize the entire game and flip flop between wanting your team to win and whether or not your bet's any good. If you're emotionally invested in a game, it's best not to bet on it. Emotions and gambling don't mix well.

2. If you have to bet in a casino, then at least make the casinos work against each other. In Vegas, take a walk from one casino to another to compare odds. Most of the time it's the less upscale local casinos that will reward you with that extra half point in your favor. This is a key component of sports betting. Finding favorable odds is maybe the most important aspect of making a smart sports bet. Finding a difference of half a point in your favor is huge. In a game where both teams' defenses are stellar, you'll expect it to be a low-scoring affair. If one team is favored by 3 points to win and all of a sudden the line changes to -3.5, then the favorite team has to win by more than a field goal. That's another scoring opportunity in what you expect to be a very tight game of clock management and field position. Now, your original intent to bet on the favorite shifts to perhaps betting on the underdog. Most sports books don't allow cell phones. One of the reasons is they don't want bettors comparing odds with their friends at another sports book.

3. Parlays and teasers are almost always sucker bets. Unless you've done tons of research, avoid these bets.

4. Participate in a fantasy league. This is a great way to keep on top of players and teams that otherwise would be of little interest to you. Knowing that a particular player performs better indoors than outdoors throughout the regular season could pay off big in a domed Super Bowl.

This is a primer for those who make one or two bets a season. Conducting research to become a consistently winning long-term gambler isn't worth the effort unless that's the lifestyle you want. Endless theories and techniques are available with just a click of the mouse. One of the best resources is King Yao's blog. Just remember, the oddsmakers want you to bet. Most of the literature out there is self-serving.

Controlled risk. That's the credo of every adventurer who was swept into the unknown, from Columbus sailing for the New World to hedge fund managers who wield esoteric algorithms to make billions annually.

No one should seek self-affirmation of any sort through gambling. You should only seek to win money. Everything else is incidental. The thrill of risk is a secondary reward to winning cash. That should be your greatest reward, the fact that you won money you didn't earn. And who doesn't like that?