Sports Betting Strategy from a Pro

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OK…over the last month we looked at what lines mean, detailed types of bets, talked about choosing bookies, and discussed using the Internet to gather information. Now let’s win some cash. If I put all my betting strategy into one article, the two-minute drill would become the two hOur root canal, so I’ve broken it up. This week, it’s “use your own handicapping skills to make dough on totals and sides”.

The following is my betting strategy for my own picks on side and total plays. I don’t discuss “how” I make my picks in this article (maybe another day) – this focuses on what I do with them once I’ve made them.

Oh yes…at this point I should trumpet how successful I am. I hit 94% of my picks. Yeah. Sure. Well, I guess not: In eight years of taking this seriously I’m hitting at about a 56% clip. Most years I bat in the mid-to-high 50s; one year I was actually 62.6%; and two years, well, I was in the high 40s but let’s forget about that just like we try to forget about Barbra Streisand’s Christmas Album. I wind up making 70-85 sides and totals plays a year “on average” and end up 5 to 8 units to the good in a typical year.

ASSUMPTIONS: You have at least three outs, and when you get different numbers you always play at the best number available at any given moment. You have a bankroll to start the season for betting football sides and totals with your own picks (we discuss a second bankroll next week) consisting of 20 units…each unit, “obviously”, 1/20th of the bankroll. So if your bankroll is $1000, you have $50 units, if your bankroll is $500 your units are $25, etc.

STEP ONE: Sunday Late / Monday / Tuesday

NFL–Handicap the Games of the coming week to the best of your ability. How you do this (stat cruncher? Feel? Both?) Is your call, but you’re living and dying by your own wits. Determine the winner and by how much. Take an early shot at the totals on Tuesday, with an eye on the extended weather forecast. DO THIS BEFORE LOOKING AT THE LINES!!

College–Choose a Conference or two (three?) that interests you that you will follow closely. With a lot more Games on the college board it is in theory a lot easier to find soft lines, but few of us have the time to be experts on 90 teams in eight conferences, especially with player turnover what it is. People tell me that lesser known conferences usually offer better betting opportunities, and they’re likely right, but as a trade off it may be harder to find timely team info to use in your handicapping, and you may not find the Fighting Schnauzers of Prussian Valley on the board for betting every week anyway. Strike a happy medium, and choose conferences you’re interested in and can watch on TV. Handicap the Games like you did in the pros. Once again, estimate the totals ‘round Tuesday for teams in the top 25 (many other Games have no total), and DO THIS BEFORE LOOKING AT THE LINES!!

The reason why you do this before looking at the lines is you don’t want the line, which is only an estimate of public perception, NOT an attempt to predict the result, to iNFLuence your perception at this point. [If this definition of the line is foreign to you, or makes no sense, please check out Article #1 in my series.]

STEP TWO (ASAP after Step One)

Dig out the lines from your best sOurce (newspaper, Internet, tv, whatever) and note the discrepancies between the handicaps you’ve assigned and the lines. (With luck you also have current run-downs of lines for each of your outs.)


NFL, Bowl Games, and Games between two top-25 College teams: Bet one unit on any Game where your handicap disagrees with the line by at least three points. Obviously, place the bet to your advantage…If you make the Packers a 9 point-favorite and the biggest discrepancy you can find is the Packers -13, bet the underdog and grab the 13 points. Similarly, if you make the Seminoles -7.5 but you can find them -4, bet them ‘Noles!

Bet two units if your number disagrees from the line by a touchdown or more –but make sure first you’ve done your homework. Don’t bet 10% of your bankroll on the Seahawks, turn on the tube on Game day, and find out Joey Galloway is holding out. OUCH!

College Games not in the above category: Bet one unit on a 6-or-more point discrepancy if the published line is below 20 points. Bet two units on a 10.5 point or more discrepancy if the published line is less than 20 points. If the line is more than 20 points, my system only allows for a one-unit bet, and it should only be placed if the difference between your handicap and your best price is 7.5 points or more.

Two points to remember:

1) We separate some college Games from the higher-profile ones and the NFL because the NFL and big-Game college lines do tend to be more accurate. Why are they more accurate? Because the uneducated public does a better job betting these Games than they do betting lesser-known college teams. Information is more readily available about bigger Games for the casual bettor. So a three-point differential (especially something juicy like your number being 4 and the line being 1) in the NFL or the Tostitos Bowl is, in my opinion, worth a six point difference in opinion when Army lines up against Bowling Green.

2) If you limit yourself to a couple college conferences (as suggested) along with the NFL, your two unit plays should occur infrequently –less than one a week for sure! If you’re making more than six two-unit plays in any month, step back for a minute and make sure you know what you’re doing as a handicapper. (If you’re winning, beautiful.) Some people advise never betting more than 3-4% of a bankroll on any play. My one-unit plays are 5% and my two-units are 10%. If you’re a good handicapper this works fine, and if you’re a weak one, at least you’ll be under no illusions to the contrary after a couple months. (There is a solid mathematical underpinning within the Central Limit Theorem and Tchebychev’s Inequality that says standard bets of 5% of bankroll, over a year of more than 50 bets, should ruin no one who is even moderately sharp –someone who in a thousand plays would hit between 500 and 530).


I play fewer totals in football, partly because there are fewer college Games with many bookies covering totals, and partly because I’m just not as confident playing football totals as I am playing sides. Not once have I broken 60% for a season in football. If I hit 55% with my totals I’m happier than a pig in poop until Presidents’ Day–and I’m not even American.

I play one unit on any total when my handicapping differs from the total line by seven points or more–and I try to make darn sure if there is such a differential, there’s no obvious reason that my first wave of research missed why this is so. Because I insist on such a discrepancy between my projection and the line, I might average one total play a week.

I’m reluctant to say “I won’t bet totals, period”, because I know some people do make money on them and I figure as long as I’m hitting 50-54%, basically getting my money back, I should keep at it in hopes the light comes on someday. [I do refuse to play first-half and halftime lines because I’ve won the Lewinsky Award on those since I suck so bad…again, people do make money on these things, but I am certainly not one of them!]

What I find so hard to handicap about totals is allowing for weather (which, even two days before the Game can be a complete crapshoot) and trying to factor in turnovers. So a team turns the ball over lots. If they cough it up inside their own five, there’s points on the board. If they stall in the red zone, seven points becomes three, or zero. Further, just as some big underdogs can “back-door cover” a side after the Game is out of reach, you can get both “back-door overs” (leading team happy to trade touchdowns, or gives up soft scores late) and “back-door unders” (with the Score35-7 and the total 46, both teams are content to just run out the clock in the last ten minutes, letting it finish 35-10).

Check out Our posting forums, but you won’t see me trumpeting scores of totals. I just don’t rely on them too much.

STEP THREE All Week Long

We make most of Our plays early in the week to try to be the first to capitalize on what we consider to be line-makers’ mistakes from a handicapper’s point of view. Nevertheless, check the lines at least once daily and a couple times on Saturday (college) and Sunday (NFL) morning. Watch what lines are moving, and try to figure out from newspaper stories and gambling sites on the Internet why the lines are jumping. If the reasons seem valid to you, adjust how you handicapped the Game and make yourself a new number. If the reasons seem invalid or there seems to be no reason, maybe you can make a bet now where you could not before (You capped the Dolphins at +3.5, say, and they opened +5.5…only a two point difference, so no play. If they then become +6.5 or +7, and after checking around you’ve no idea why, plop down a unit and grab the 7 points!)

IN SUMMARY: Does this system guarantee you’ll make money? Absolutely not…you cash in if, and only if, you’re an astute handicapper. your success or failure is in your hands.

NEXT  we look at cashing in based on the Joy of Numbers –whether you handicap well or not. Some people just bet on their handicapping knack…some just bet the numbers. I’m of the opinion one ought to do both…so next week, to counter this week, it’s equal time for scalping, middling, cranking stale numbers and other little ideas that try to turn the bookies’ theoretical advantage against them.

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