Picking winners is not all that's it's cracked up to be - at least for the supposed 99% of sports gamblers who end up in the red over the long-term. While most beginning gamblers immediately try to put their sports knowledge to use by trying to select winning teams against the spread, this is a lot harder than it sounds. Point spreads are notoriously accurate for the major sports, as any long-time gambler can attest, and consistently beating your bookie is much easier said than done.
There are a couple of basic strategies you can you use to tip the scales at least slightly back in your direction. Beginners can follow these strategies to keep their heads above water until they get their bearings in the handicapping world, though long-time gamblers will also admit that these are simple rules to live by, even for the most experienced bettor.
Shop 'til you drop - always get the best line
The proliferation of online bookies has allowed for an advantageous situation for the gambler - line variety. In the old days, you had one set of lines to bet against, the lines appearing that morning in whatever newspaper your "guy" decided to go by. Now, gamblers can pick and choose between dozens of different sets of lines offered by various bookmakers. Getting the best line is a huge but often under-appreciated edge for the gambler.
Let's say you make 100 wagers during football season, each risking $11 to win $10. If you are able to pick the "typical" 50% against the spread, you will end up with a net loss of $50 on the season. This is better thought of as a loss of $0.50 per game, or even better yet, as a loss (or negative expectation) of 4.55 % (your loss of $50 divided by a total of $1100 wagered). Unfortunately, this negative expectation is what your average gambler can expect to face each time he makes a bet. Imagine, however, that on just two of those games during the season you were able to get yourself an extra half point that turned a loss into a push. Now you have a record of 50-48-2, which leaves you with a loss of only $28 instead of $50 on the season. Your expectation is now only negative 2.6%. Picking up an extra 2% is not that difficult, either - that is close to or even lower than the average "push rate" for the spreads in many sports, particularly football and basketball, meaning that if you were able to shop hard enough to get an extra half point from "average" on every game, you should be able to achieve at least 2-3% extra winners.
There are a lot of ways to get free half points. Some sportsbooks offer them as promotions at certain times during the week. Other books "shade" the line due to their clientele or the action they are writing on a particular game. When there is a major line move, some books may be slow to react. Others will fail to notice a line slowly creeping in one direction. Regardless of how you get those extra points, the bottom line is that time spent line-shopping can pay for itself dozens of times over.
Keep in mind that other promotions can give you the same effect. "Reduced juice" books that deal lines at terms lower than -110 also allow you to turn a profit with a lower winning percentage. A sportsbook who offers all their lines at -105 is essentially giving away a free half point in football or baseball. Likewise, a dedicated line shopper playing moneyline sports can often get either side of the bet at close to "fair value" (no juice) just by taking advantage of the variation present among bookmakers. Your goal as a sportsbettor should be the same as the guy with a huge handful of coupons in line at the grocery store, whose cart only contains items on sale that week - being diligent about the absolute best price (line) on your purchases (bets) will pay off tremendously in the long run.
A sucker is born every minute - don't be one yourself
While betting into regular lines at -110 is tough enough, plenty of sportsbooks offer bets which are even worse. There are plenty of wagers where the bookie can slip in a little extra "juice" without arousing the player's suspicion. Parlay payoffs are often manipulated by sportsbooks, especially for big-payoff parlays of 4 or more wagers. Some sportsbooks will pay off correctly, but others pay off based on a "parlay chart" (4-teamers at 10-to-1, 5-teamers at 20-to-1, and so on). These parlays short change the player and should be avoided, and generally, the larger the payout, the more you're being ripped off. If you are playing parlays, make sure you are at least getting paid off as well as you would be if you were betting those same games straight and "letting it ride".
New players are always attracted to teasers, though most teasers are horrible bets and teasers on totals are even worse. Unless you have thoroughly researched an angle and have a good rationale for playing it, teasers should be avoided completely. While NFL teasers through key numbers have historically been profitable, sportsbooks have lowered payouts on teasers, making them barely profitable nowadays. Think of teasers as buying points -- there is rarely justification for buying 6 points in a football game. Most players also don't realize that buying those 6 points drives up the cost of each individual side from -110 to -270 - a wager most players would completely avoid if it wasn't handily tied into a 2-team combination that pays out at -110.
Futures are another area where new bettors can find themselves with the short end of the stick. The "juice" in most futures books is extraordinarily high, and there are many situations where playing the individual games may give a better payout than the combined "to win" line. There is also an opportunity cost in tying up gambling funds for months at a time, and in the wild-west world of offshore gambling, leaving your money locked up for months may not be in your best interest.
Those who can't, sell picks - avoid handicapping services
Numerous handicapping services exist, from huge operations like Jim Feist to small operations consisting of one man, a website, and a dartboard with names of sports teams. There are certainly some legitimate services out there, and even some fraudulent services might be worth paying for just to know who they're on. New gamblers often look to such "professionals" to bail them out of gambling troubles, thinking that an experienced handicapper must be able to do better. But even given the merit of some such services, novices should steer completely away from them. The sinners outnumber the saints by at least 100-to-1 in this business, and even those who stumble into a winner have to deal with the cost of paying for picks, potentially a large drain on the profits of a small gambler. Touts also promote bad habits like taking bad numbers and overbetting your bankroll. If you are starting out, you are almost certainly better served by making your own picks and starting to understand the handicapping game on your own.
While these basic rules alone will not make you a winner, they can help you to "lose less" until you have time to hone your handicapping skills. If you are already able to pick winners, they will only help to put more money in your pocket.
"The Complete Square's Guide to Sports Wagering" is a recurring series aimed at educating novice sports bettors. The next article will take a look at money management.
If you would like to make or read comments about this article, you may do so by visiting the Mess Hall forum at MajorWager.com where a thread has been started. Please click HERE