“If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”
In a movie full of great lines, that one was the best. The best because Rounders was a poker movie, and no sentence has ever hit at the core of poker better than that one.
But also, the best because the idea so clearly transcends poker. It’s a dark truism about our culture and the world we live in.
And—in a much more trivial but no less profound way—about betting on sports.
Most casino games are single-player games. Some games like slot machines and video poker are obviously so. You sit by yourself at a machine and press buttons.
Table games like blackjack may not appear to be single player at first. There’s always at least a dealer at the table, and there are usually other players too.
But the dealers are just there to turn cards over and pay bets—they have no decision-making authority. Their jobs could easily be done by a machine—machine dealers are a trend in modern casinos.
The other players at the table aren’t part of your game either. They’re playing their own games. Next to you. What they do has no effect on your game, and vice versa. If they’re suckers, it does you no good. The only thing that matters in blackjack is how well your strategy exploits the static rules of the game.
People often think of these casino games as “you versus the house.” But the house isn’t playing. You’re the only one playing. Against a fixed ruleset designed to make you lose. The house is just there to run the game and collect your losses.
Poker is different, of course. It’s different because the house’s role as a non-player is more obvious. You sit at a table with eight other people, and you are really playing against them. If you’ve got a sucker at the table, then it’s likely to be a good day. Again, the house’s role is simply to run the game and collect a fee for doing so.
Sports betting is unique because it’s the only game where you are, in fact, playing against the house. The house is an active participant. It’s your main, direct adversary.
It’s also a zero-sum game. Either you will win, and the house will lose the same amount. Or the house will win, and you will lose.
It’s a little unfair, because unlike in poker where you can stare your opponents down across the table, in sports betting you usually don’t get to look your competition in the eye. But every time you make a bet at a sportsbook, you are playing in a game against other people. People who work for the sportsbook. Other bettors. People who are trying to beat you. Because if they don’t beat you, then by the definition of a zero-sum game, you will beat them. And if you do enough of that they’ll be out of a job.
This is a core truth about sports betting. You’re playing a game against other people who are actively trying to beat you.
And it’s not just a two-player game—you against the house. It’s a multiplayer game where you are playing indirectly against other bettors. In blackjack if the best blackjack player in the world is sitting next to you, it has no effect on your hand or results.
In sports betting if the best player in the world is betting in your market, it costs you money and makes it harder for you to win.
So, while Mike McDermott was talking about poker when he said you need to be able to spot the sucker, it’s even more true in sports betting. If you can’t spot the sucker, you are the sucker. This book teaches you how to spot the sucker and to keep from being the sucker yourself. And maybe even how to make a few bucks along the way.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part is an in-depth examination of your main counterpart, the sportsbook. It’s a nuts-and-bolts look at how bets work, and then an explanation of how the sports betting industry is put together, its strengths, its weaknesses, and what tricks you can expect from the folks who work for the house as they try (hopefully in vain) to win your money.
The second part of the book covers the logic of sports betting. These are the main concepts you need to navigate markets, avoid pitfalls, and build a winning strategy.
The third part is a practical guide to looking at a sports betting menu and consistently finding bets that will win over time.
My goal with all of it is to give you a pretty good look behind the curtain of the sports betting industry, so you see where sportsbooks are strong and where they’re barely holding things together. (The barely holding things together parts should be your focus when betting.) Then to outline the logic of how to find good bets while still allowing you to take the final step on your own to put the ideas into practice.
Finally, a caveat. This book is about the logic of sports betting. It’s not a guide to becoming a professional bettor, and in particular, there is one key area of professional betting I don’t cover—data analytics and modeling. It’s possible to win a little at sports if you don’t do much data work, but it’s impossible to win a lot without diving deeply into the data.
What I cover in this book is all required knowledge to bet professionally, but it is not enough on its own. If your goal is to become a highly educated recreational bettor, this book might be all you need to have fun with betting and stick it to the sportsbooks. If you want to turn your betting into a business, however, you need a lot more knowledge than just what I cover here.
Alright let’s get to it.
I doubt most people would really think about it this way, but in my experience, many sports bettors treat the activity like it’s a game of solitaire. Or like it’s a puzzle book like Sudoku or something.
They open a sports betting app or website—or pick up a sheet if they’re really old-school—and start looking at the lines one-by-one. They’re looking for lines that are “off.” They make their estimate of what the line should be, they look at what’s on the app or sheet, and if they’re sufficiently different, they make a bet.
I guess the theory goes that there are bad lines out there, and if you find enough of them through this process, you’ll win.
Sports betting as solitaire is a terrible way to think about the game, though. I don’t know of anyone who wins who takes this approach.
There are two sides to every bet. When you type your bet into the app and hit go, you’re just accepting an offer to bet with someone on the other end. Someone who works for the sportsbook.
Someone who wants to beat you, not just on behalf of the company they work for, but often out of a personal sense of competition as well. Someone who has a whole lot of built in advantages over you.
There’s a counterparty to your bet. An equal party. If it’s a Yankees-Red Sox game, and you bet the Yankees for $100 to win $100, then someone somewhere offered to bet the Red Sox against you for $100 to win $100. If you bet $100 to win $10,000 on the Cleveland Browns to win the Super Bowl, then someone else has agreed to bet $10,000 to win your $100 that they won’t.
That counterparty isn’t a machine or an algorithm or a table game dealer bound by static rules. It’s an actual person with latitude to play the game how they see fit. That person made the two-sided offer and agreed to take the other side because they thought they had the right side of it.
They think you’re gonna lose.
But really sports betting isn’t a two-player game either. It’s a multiplayer game.
Because at the very same time you opened your app and started looking at prices, so did hundreds of other people. Some people who bet for a living look at those prices all day long every day.
And they’re trying to do the same thing you are. They’re looking for the lines that are “off” and they’re betting them.
Think about how Black Friday works. Every year some big retailer announces that their Black Friday sale will start at exactly 6am. And a huge crowd forms outside, and then when they open the doors, the mob rushes into the store and someone films it and it gets on the news and all of us above-it-alls shake our heads and wonder why anyone could be so selfish and foolish and materialistic that they’d trample their fellow humans to try to buy cheap stuff on Black Friday.
But why are people doing that? Are they just nuts? Why don’t they just wait a few hours until the mob is gone and do their shopping in relative peace?
They brave the mob because they know that the retailer uses artificial scarcity on the very best deals. Yes, you can—as advertised—buy a 65-inch TV for $99. But there are only three dozen of them in stock. And when they’re gone, they’re gone, and when the TVs get restocked the price is going back to normal.
This is almost always true. The real deals rarely last. By the time you hit the store even a few hours later, you’re basically looking at run-of-the-mill sale prices and possibly nothing even worth driving to the store for.
Sports betting is very similar. Sportsbooks tend to have a predictable schedule for when they list their markets. For the NBA, for example, a market making sportsbook might post the next day’s NBA games at roughly the same time every evening. A “mob” collects, waiting for these markets to post. (The mob is online obviously. And we’ll talk more about market makers later in the book, but for now a market maker is just a sportsbook that posts opening lines for games, takes bets, and moves their line based on the action. If you thought every sportsbook did this, well, keep on reading.)
As soon as the markets post, people scan the lines as quickly as they can looking for the best deals. As soon as they spot a deal, they jam in a full-limit bet. And as soon as someone makes a bet, the sportsbook moves the price.
If the price is still a “deal” after a single price move, either someone else bets it, or the original bettor bets again.
This process goes quickly, with one or another of the mob smashing in their bets on all the obvious good prices. By the time things quiet down, almost by definition there are no obvious good deals left. Everything’s been picked through.
At this point, the sportsbooks that don’t act as market makers (that’s most all of them), open their markets. They use the lines that got hashed out by the feeding frenzy. They want nothing to do with the mob or the $99 TVs. They’re selling only the TVs that are still left after all the $99 ones are gone.
That’s the trouble with looking at sports betting as you versus the sportsbook. Whatever price you’re seeing—whatever line you think is “off” or has “value”—has been seen by dozens or hundreds of other like-minded people. And they all looked at that price and didn’t see what you think you see. They looked at it and said, “Meh, bad bet.”
That does not mean necessarily that you are wrong and they are right. Obviously if they were always right, it would be essentially impossible to win at sports betting if you aren’t interested in being part of a mob.
But you should never underestimate the power of this “picked over” effect either. It’s very strong. It’s strongest in the markets that get the most attention.
For example, consider the major NFL markets—game point spread, moneyline, total, and first half point spread and total.
By Sunday night, the earliest market makers will post lines for the next week’s NFL games for the major markets. The feeding frenzy process will take place. Then on Monday a few more places will post lines and another minor feeding frenzy will happen.
Let’s say your favorite sportsbook then opens their NFL markets for the week on Tuesday morning. One way or the other, they will be duplicating the current lines posted at the early bird places—the lines arrived at after the feeding frenzies stopped because those involved couldn’t find anything worth betting anymore.
If your process is just to look at these lines on Tuesday morning, see which ones look “off,” and bet them, chances are very strong that your process is a losing one.
Why? Because the sportsbook’s hold forces you to be “right” the vast majority of the time. If one of your theories turns out to be mostly BS, every bet you make using that theory costs you two or three “good” bets worth of value.
When you bet on Tuesday you’re saying, “I know hundreds of people who are trying to win already picked through all these numbers, but I can find the seven ones they all missed, and I’m almost never wrong about it.”
Again, this is not impossible. I’m just hoping when I put it this way that you understand what a high bar it really requires to try to beat these major markets.
Furthermore, there’s a substantial difference between trying to bet NFL on Tuesday and betting on Saturday or Sunday morning. On Tuesday, the market making books that set the lines typically still have restricted limits on NFL and college football. This limits who wants to participate in the market on Tuesday—the football bettors with the largest bankrolls (a mixture of the strongest bettors and the not-as-strong-but-with-enormous-egos bettors) often sit things out until the limits increase.
Sunday night and Monday NFL bettors are the sports betting equivalent of Black Friday retail shoppers trampling and clawing each other over a pile of half-off Nintendos. Tuesday and Wednesday bettors are the folks who spend all day on eBay sniping mispriced auctions and reselling the goods at profit. Saturday and Sunday NFL bettors are big swinging dick Wall Street traders (sometimes literally).
Okay that was a ridiculous analogy, but you get the idea. As the week goes on, the inventory (the major NFL side and totals markets) get picked over by increasingly sophisticated bettors.
If you’re betting an NFL point spread, moneyline, or total on Sunday morning at a major market making book (or at a retail book with the same price as the market makers), it will prove very difficult to win. You will need a truly unique insight into how these bets should be priced that an entire country of 300 million people doesn’t comprehend.
All this explanation leads up to one central idea. In the rest of the book I will teach you how to go about looking for bets that win. Perhaps the most key idea toward that end is this.
Avoid betting into major markets that have been picked over by others. Look for virgin lines, scarcely examined bets, and those that serious bettors tend to ignore.
Look for markets at one sportsbook that aren’t even offered at other sportsbooks—this cuts down the number of eyeballs who might see the bets and snipe the good ones before you.
Look for markets that are only up for a few minutes (second half and in-play markets).
If you go into this thinking you’re the smartest person in the world and that you can go head-to-head with the entire betting market, you will almost certainly fail.
So don’t do that. Treat sports betting like an Easter egg hunt. When all the other kids run one direction, you run the other. Look for the eggs a little less out in the open. It’s more fun anyway.
 The vig. The juice. The take. The house cut. We’ll call it the hold throughout the book and explain how to calculate it in future chapters.
Ed Miller (@EdMillerPoker) is a best-selling (over 300,000 copies sold) author of books on poker and gambling. This is his first book on sports betting, but maybe his favorite book to write so far.
Matthew Davidow (@DavidowMatthew) is a sports modeler, using proprietary methods to beat major sports betting markets for over 15 years, and co-founding two leading private sports analytics firms along the way.