Vegas gambling guide: Sports betting
The Super Bowl is upon us. Historically, more money has been bet on this game than any other American sporting event. While much of the betting is casual and among friends, a flabbergasting amount is wagered with sports books and online bookmakers. Though bets among friends are pretty straightforward, laying bets with sports books and bookmakers is anything but.
Any discussion of sports betting can wind up in the weeds pretty fast. Odds making, the spread, prop bets, overs and unders, parlays: It's about as clear as accounting in a third-world bureaucracy. I'm going to try, however, to blow away the fog one small puff at a time and, in the process, hope to illuminate the arcane mysteries of sports betting.
It all starts with a game
Usually there is a favorite and an underdog. Common sense and a cursory knowledge of sports give most folks a sense of which team is more likely to win. Next September, for example, the Alabama Crimson Tide will play the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee University. Anything can happen in sports, but most would agree that the probability of Middle Tennessee pulling off an upset is slim to none. If a Blue Raiders alum wants to make a straight-up bet for even money that his team will beat the Tide, he can do it, but it wouldn't be the smartest thing he ever did.
Enter the bookmaker
If you were a bookie covering straight-up win/lose bets, you'd get creamed because most bettors would bet on Alabama and very few on Middle Tennessee. As it happens, the bookie doesn't care who actually wins. What he wants is a low-risk scenario: approximately the same amount of money wagered on each team. When betting with a sports book or bookie, you're charged what amounts to a commission (in gambling terms: "vigorish") for handling the bets. In other words, you'll have to bet $11 to win $10. The extra $1 from losing bets goes to the bookie regardless of the outcome of the game. If an equal amount is bet on each team, the bookie uses the money bet by the losers to pay off the winners and pockets the vig. Balancing the amount wagered on each team is very difficult, and a bookmaker who makes the wrong adjustments to the line can lose a bundle.
Let's hear it for the underdog
So how does the bookmaker get people to bet on the underdog? He gives them a little help. In our example, he would say, "If you'll bet on Middle Tennessee, I'll add 35 extra points to their actual score." If the Blue Raiders rack up 7 points in the game and the bookie adds 35, their total score, as far as the bet is concerned, would be 42. If you bet with the bookie on Alabama, the Tide would have to score 43 or more points for you to win your bet. Theoretically, if the bookie offers enough points to the underdog to make betting on it attractive, the same amount of money will be bet on each team. The number of points the bookie allows the underdog is what determines the line, also referred to as the spread.
The points accorded the underdog are usually pretty much the same from one bookmaker to another, but it's still worthwhile to shop around. If one bookmaker gives Middle Tennessee only 32 points instead of 35, that makes a bet on Alabama easier to win because they need to score only 40 points rather than 43. If you're betting on Alabama and deciding with which bookie or sports book to place your bet, the one offering 32 points increases the probability of you winning the bet.
When the NFL conference championships were decided and we learned that the Seattle Seahawks would play the New England Patriots, sports books announced the opening line, or the number of points allowed the underdog. But guess what? The sports books at Westgate Las Vegas and Caesars Entertainment properties thought that the teams are so evenly matched that they didn't give points to either team. This is known as a "pick 'em." But an opening line is just that. Let's say that because more people live in New England than in Washington, more money is wagered on the Pats than on the Seahawks. In this case, the bookies would give a point or two to the Seahawks to even up the amount bet on both sides. Thus, the line would fluctuate somewhat right up until game time. It's very unlikely that the Super Bowl betting line will close as a pick 'em. It's never happened before according to VegasInsider.com's history and would therefore be totally unprecedented.
There are several types of sports bets. The different odds, point spread (the line), and payoffs for the most popular wagers are encapsulated in two lines of figures per game on an electronic sports board display in a casino or an online sports book's website. The figures are not explained — it's up to you to know what they mean. Because the upcoming Super Bowl is a pick 'em, or close to it, we'll look at a board display entry from the past that offers more differentiation.
Cowboys: -8, -400
Chiefs: 42, +300
I should pause here to say this discussion applies to two teams going head-to-head and is different from how odds are presented for multi-contestant events such as horse races.
The Cowboys are the favorite, and -8 is the number of points you would subtract from their score or, expressed differently, tack onto the actual score of the underdog Chiefs. So if you bet the Chiefs and the score turned out to be Cowboys 14, Chiefs 7, adding the 8 points to the Chiefs would give them a score of 15 (7 + 8) and you would win the bet.
The 42 is for over and under bets. Here, you bet that the two teams' scores added together would either be over or under 42. If the game's a defensive battle and the final score is Cowboys 10, Chiefs 7, the total score for the game would be 17 (10 + 7), and bets on "under" would win.
Money line bets
The -400 and +300 are for money line bets. Money line bets are based on which team will win without any consideration of the line. However, the probability of one team winning over another is incorporated in the payouts for winning bets. The way this is stated on the odds board is a little counterintuitive and confuses many people. Each minus figure (-400) indicates how much you'd have to bet to win $100. So if you bet on the Cowboys, you'd have to put down $400 to win $100. Betting on the Chiefs, a plus figure (+300) means the wager pays off at more than 1 to 1. If you risk $100, a winning bet would pay $300.
"Prop" or proposition bets can be made covering a whole range of things that may or may not occur in a game. For the Super Bowl, for example, you can bet on which team will win the coin toss, which team will score first, the distance in yards of the longest touchdown of the game, which player will be the most valuable player, and so on. The number of prop bets available is simply numbing. For a look at some of the Super Bowl prop bets and their respective odds, check out LVAsports.com.
Parlays and teaser bets
Parlay bets link separate bets together. You have to win all bets for the parlay to pay off. Let's say that by game time the line adjusts to the Patriots being a 3.5 points favorite. Half points, as in 3.5, eliminate the possibility of a tie, or "push" as it's called in gambling. Because there's no way to score a half point on the field, it takes at least 4 points to beat the spread. Thus, betting on the Seahawks, the underdog, you add 3.5 points to their score. So the Pats must win by at least 4 points (more than 3.5) for you to lose your bet. Then, hooking another bet to the first in a parlay, you bet that the final sum of the two teams' scores will be under 48.5 points. To win your parlay, the Hawks must win the game by holding the Pats to a four or fewer points difference AND the total score must be under 48.5 points. In this example, a total score of 48 points would be a winner.
Simply put, a teaser bet involves an adjustment of the spread to increase your odds of winning. Teasers are "offered" so to speak. For instance, you might be offered an adjustment (teaser) of the line of 6, or 6.5, or 7 points. If you select 7 points, those are added to the spread of the first bet of the parlay. So if the spread on the first bet of the parlay was 3.5, and then you add the 7 points teaser, the adjusted spread is 3.5 + 7 = 10.5, which means that New England must win by 11 points instead of the original 4 in the parlay for you to lose. Likewise, 7 points are added to the second bet of the parlay for the under bet, so 48.5 + 7 = 55.5. For the teaser to win, the Patriots cannot win by more than 10.5 points AND the total score must be under 55.5.
Why would you want to bet a teaser? Probably because it took you a month just to understand it, but also because it improves your chances of winning. The enhanced probability, however, comes at a price. The payoff for the teaser will be less than that of the parlay.