Beating the Number

Last week, I discussed how a pointspread is derived by a sportsbook. Now that we know where spreads come from, we can discuss how best to take advantage of them.

One of my most memorable lessons as a novice bookmaker in Costa Rica was from one of the nicest and funniest guys you will meet in this business. His name is Rocket and he is an experienced professional sports gambler, handicapper and book manager. I learned a lot of things about the industry from him, but I will focus on the most important lesson today, beating the number.

When you are betting football and basketball spreads and totals and laying 110 to win 100 on every bet, you need to win 52.38% of your bets just to break even and cover the juice you pay to sportsbooks. It could be argued that anybody could win 50% of games by flipping a coin (which I find annoying as I struggle to hit that mark some weeks) so the tough part is finding enough overlays to boost your win percentage above the 52.4% mark. However, there are other ways to boost your win percentage, one of which is shopping for the best available line you can find.

If you have an account at only one sportsbook, you have no choice but to either accept the line offered or not bet. If you use two sportsbooks, you can compare the lines you get and wager on the one that provides you with the best opportunity to win your bet. Why would you wager on St. Louis Rams -6.5 if you could wager on the same game with the Rams -6? Why would you wager at -6 if you could get a wager in at St. Louis -5.5? This seems like common sense, but it is surprising to me how many players take no heed of the line they are betting on. Estimates vary, but generally getting an extra point adds up to 4% to your chance of winning a wager. This is particularly important around key numbers in football, 3 and 7, and smaller numbers in general. By smaller numbers, I mean the difference between a 2 and a 2.5-point line is more likely to make a difference than is the difference between a 22 and a 22.5-point line, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make an effort to get the best line possible every time.

It’s up to you to decide how many books you should use. If you have too many, you may lose some opportunities as it will take too long to shop all the lines and your bankroll could be spread too thin so be sure to choose sportsbooks where it is easy to get the lines you need very quickly. If you have too few, you will miss other opportunities. The magic number is probably somewhere around five for most people, but if you only have one account, even getting two more sets of lines to look at for every game should make a big difference to your bottom line at the end of the season. In the example above, what line would you rather have if the Rams won the game 27-21? A half point can make the difference between a push and a win or a loss and getting a few extra wins or pushes over the course of the season makes that extra shopping well worth the effort.

Another factor in beating the number and boosting your win percentage that I learned from Rocket is timing. I am sure you have all experienced a game where your morning paper says the line is Celtics -3 and as you do your research you like the Celtics, but by the time you go to bet it, the line is -5. So, if Boston wins by 4, your handicapping picked a winner even though your bet was a loser! Even shopping for the best line may not have made a difference if you wagered later in the day after the line had moved from -3 to -5. Rocket pays close attention to opening lines and then which way they move from there before making any plays. “For example”, he says, “if a line opens at -6.5 and moves to -6, you know sportsbooks are getting action on the underdog. If you like the favorite in that particular game, you may be better served by waiting as that line moves from -6 to -5.5 to -5 over the course of the day or the week.” This is tougher to do than shopping for the best line and takes some experience to get a feel for which way lines move, but after even just a couple of weeks of tracking opening and closing lines, you will be better prepared to get the best possible number on every wager you place.

I lost enough games by a half point or a point to know the value of the advice I got from Rocket. If you ask him who he has in the imaginary Rams game I’ve been using as an example, I bet he would have the Rams -4.5, making me feel silly for thinking -5.5 was the best line. He’d also add “I’ve beat the number, now all I gotta do is beat the game”. Well said Rocket, well said.

Next week, I’ll talk a little bit about why lines can be so varied at different sportsbooks in an article called “balancing the books”.

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Rob Gillespie is President of Bodog Sportsbook & Casino