Pull up any news source you prefer and it won’t take long to find a story about sports betting going mainstream.
Ever since May of 2018 – When the United States Supreme Court ruled to repeal a 26-year old federal ban on sportsbooks operating outside of Nevada – the floodgates have opened. Seven states have launched legal sports wagering industries since then, with Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi, West Virginia, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island all joining the Silver State.
And even the major professional sports leagues, all of which opposed sports betting legalization at the onset, have come aboard. The NBA, MLB, and NHL have all linked up with MGM Resorts International for an exclusive data-sharing deal, while the NFL is allowing teams to partner with individual operators for branding and marketing purposes.
Throw in a wave of online and mobile sports betting spearheaded by offshore sites like Bovada and Pinnacle, along with legal platforms like DraftKings, FanDuel, and BetStars, and the sky certainly is the limit for modern sports betting.
But even as the industry ushers in a new golden age of advancement, sports bettors themselves are still faced with the same dilemma as always – figuring out a way to beat the books. Between the vig charged by the house and natural variance, one thing has remained the same throughout decades of sports betting progression – 53.5 percent.
That’s the win rate a bettor must attain to ensure themselves even the smallest of profit. Anything less than that – even a winning year in which you cash 52 percent of tickets – is guaranteed to produce a minor loss thanks to the vig.
Of course, how that job is performed has changed by leaps and bounds over the last few years. So-called “quants” use computer-driven algorithms to digest all conceivable data points, and individual models can be perfected to push sharps into the realm of profitability.
But unless you have access to a supercomputer of your own, most of us casual bettors are left to sort through the maze all on their own. Sure, you’ll find a wealth of strategy tips and tutorials online – like the one you’re reading at the moment – but it’s still up to each individual to spend their wagering dollars wisely.
That’s where relying on old-school sports betting tactics comes into play. The wiseguys of legend – acclaimed handicappers like Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder and Billy Walters – may not have had NASA calculators at their disposal like today’s young guns, but they still beat the books senseless through sheer savvy alone.
On that note, let’s run through a few old-time sports betting strategies that still serve sharps everywhere well:
1 – Key Numbers Really Are Crucial for Football Bets
Seeing as how football, both collegiate and professional, is by far the most popular betting market, it makes sense to start there.
Ever since the rules of the game were codified a century ago, even the most fleeting of fans were able to notice a pattern when it comes to football scores. With teams generally scoring in increments of 3 and 7 – the points earned for a field goal and a touchdown (plus the extra point), respectively – games are typically won or lost by margins of 3 and 7.
Don’t take my word for it though, just check out the table below to see how 2,670 NFL games were decided over a 10-year sample size:
|NFL Margin of Victory Data (From 2003 Through 2013)|
|Margin of Victory||Total Games||% of Total Games|
As you can see, games decided by exactly one field goal were the overwhelming leader, with 479 such finals good for a whopping 18.69 percent of all contests that decade. Next up are games decided by exactly one touchdown, at 294 games and an 11.47 percent clip.
And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the third-most common final score margin was 10 – or the sum of one touchdown and one field goal.
Because of this clear and undeniable pattern, savvy football bettors have long since realized the importance of these “key numbers.” For a sharp wagering on football point spreads, the most important key numbers are obviously 3 and 7, followed by 10 and then 6, which represents a margin of either two field goals or a touchdown minus a missed extra point.
Let’s say the book opens a Cowboys vs. Eagles game at Dallas (-3). Recognizing that the final will produce a 3-point margin almost 20 percent of the time, the sharps will stay away from that flat key number because they know the ticket will wind up as a push plenty of times.
Instead, folks interested in backing Dallas will wait for the line to move (more on this to come in the next entry) to (-2.5), while Philadelphia fans will want to get their team at (+3.5).
That additional half-point comes into play so often thanks to key number scoring that football bettors refer to it as “the hook.”
The example above can be tweaked using 7, 10, or 6 key numbers as well, with sharps generally preferring to have the hook in one direction of the other.
And when you think it through, this timeworn strategy for winning your football wagers certainly makes sense.
If you prefer backing underdogs, you’ll always want to wait for the hook to be added on top of your plus key number. What’s the point of betting on a (+7) favorite when you know so many games wind up decided by exactly one touchdown?
And conversely, those who tend to bet on favorites need their spread to drop a half-point under key numbers to keep their bets “live.” Nothing stings worse than having a nice (-3) fave lined up, only to see them break a tie on a late field goal to win by exactly 3 points.
Key numbers are most often associated with football point spreads, but you can also make them work for you while betting game totals.
For readers who aren’t aware, game total betting removes the team vs. team concept entirely from the equation. Instead, you’ll be trying to guess whether the combined final score will go over or under a set number.
In that Cowboys and Eagles example from above, let’s imagine the books set a game total of 43. You might like a defensive struggle and a low-scoring game, so you’d bet on the Under (43). From there, any combined total score that falls under 43 – your 17-14 snoozer to name just one example – will cash your ticket. On the other hand, a high-scoring game that finishes 24-20 would leave your ticket a loser, as the total climbed over 43.
Many sharp bettors enjoy game totals – which aren’t exclusive to football by the way – because they can turn any lopsided game into a close contest. Even if the Patriots are destroying the Jets by 40, you’ll still have a reason to sweat the action so long as the total result remains in doubt.
And by scanning the table below, which shows the most prevalent final score totals in the NFL since the 2000 season, you’ll have a leg up going forward:
|NFL Game Total Data (Since 2000)|
|Points||Games||Percentage||Games (Last 5 Years)||Percentage (Last 5 Years)|
|41||182||4.03 percent||46||3.45 percent|
|37||176||3.90 percent||42||3.15 percent|
|44||170||3.77 percent||55||4.12 percent|
|51||162||3.59 percent||45||3.37 percent|
|43||159||3.52 percent||51||3.82 percent|
|40||145||3.21 percent||42||3.15 percent|
|47||143||3.17 percent||48||3.60 percent|
|33||139||3.08 percent||39||2.92 percent|
|48||131||2.90 percent||38||2.85 percent|
|30||126||2.79 percent||36||2.70 percent|
|55||121||2.68 percent||39||2.92 percent|
|34||117||2.59 percent||39||2.92 percent|
|45||115||2.55 percent||30||2.25 percent|
|27||112||2.48 percent||25||1.87 percent|
|38||102||2.26 percent||26||1.95 percent|
|23||102||2.26 percent||17||1.27 percent|
|50||99||2.19 percent||40||3.00 percent|
|36||99||2.19 percent||37||2.77 percent|
|52||96||2.13 percent||31||2.32 percent|
|54||90||1.99 percent||32||2.40 percent|
|31||88||1.95 percent||16||1.20 percent|
|39||84||1.86 percent||33||2.47 percent|
|29||82||1.82 percent||16||1.20 percent|
|46||80||1.77 percent||30||2.25 percent|
As the data makes clear, 41 points combined is the most common game total in the NFL over the last two decades, coming in at more than 4 percent of the time. Frequent scorelines such as 21-20, 24-17, and 28-13 help to make 41 the most key number of all for total bettors.
From there, look for totals of 37 and 44, which hit at 3.90 percent and 3.77 percent rates, respectively.
2 – Waiting for Line Movement as Bookmakers Need to Mitigate Risk
Point spreads and money line odds are established by the house for one basic reason – to ensure a roughly equal amount of money is wagered on both sides of a contest.
Recreational bettors often confuse this objective, however, mistakenly believing odds and lines are designed to reflect the true gulf between favorites and underdogs. When a square bettor sees something like Chiefs (-10) over the Browns, they talk themselves into believing Kansas City is actually 10 points better than Cleveland on that given Sunday.
And while they very well might be this year, that 10-point spread wasn’t generated to provide an accurate assessment of the teams’ respective strength. No, the bookmakers put up a 10-point line with one goal, and one goal only, in mind – attracting enough Browns backers to mitigate the risk incurred by Chief’s bettors.
The general betting public – your armchair quarterbacks and tourists visiting Vegas – will almost always side with the favorite. They see a high-octane offense like the 2018 Chiefs sport, compare it to their historical knowledge of Browns futility, and decide to bet on the better team is the right play.
Without carefully calibrated point spreads, the books would see 90 percent or more of the action for this game come in on Kansas City, leaving them badly exposed to big losses should the Chiefs romp to a big win and a cover.
To avoid catastrophic losses when the favorites perform up to par for the public, sportsbooks set the lines specifically to ensure even action on both sides. By putting up that 10-point number, the books are hoping to bring sharp bettors who don’t mind backing dogs – provided the price is right of course – into the fold.
Between a few larger bets placed by sharps on Cleveland, and legions of small tickets coming on in Kansas City, a capable bookmaker has managed the venue’s risk expertly. No matter which side wins, the book will pay out equally on either team and clear a tidy profit for itself.
In a New York Times profile titled “The Super Bowl of Sports Gambling” published in 2014, the author perfectly encapsulates how sportsbooks approach risk management through the odds they offer:
For instance, if too much money is pouring in on, say, the underdog Packers at +7.5, Kornegay might shift the line to +7, thus reducing the team’s advantage and encouraging more people to bet on Green Bay’s opponent.
A wager from someone who is known to be a well-informed bettor may also prompt a line move, on the assumption that he has chosen a particular team for a good reason.”
Of course, the old-school sharps and wiseguys knew how this system worked long ago, and they used that knowledge to their advantage.
Take the infamous Las Vegas sports betting whale Billy Walters, one of the winningest handicappers in Sin City history. During an interview with ESPN, Walters’ methods for taking advantage of internal sportsbook line movement were laid bare:
The moment the line gets to 4, a runner is instructed to immediately place a larger bet — perhaps $250,000 — on the other team. The $125,000 on the initial lines will be lost, but if things go according to plan, the $250,000 on the other side will win enough to make up for it many times over.
Walters uses the same method on multiple games, often risking millions each weekend.”
You don’t have to bet seven-figure sums to use Walters’ strategy though, as the concept remains the same across the board. By “shopping” for the best lines possible, and pouncing on favorable numbers when they arise, anybody can increase their chances of beating the books.
3 – Relying on Insider Info Unavailable to the Public
This tip isn’t exactly the most ethical out there, which is why I saved it for last and will pay it short shrift.
Nonetheless, sports bettors have always capitalized on insider information to figure out the right side. Everything from injuries that haven’t been made public, to team chemistry issues and even problems at home, athletes aren’t exactly automatons out there. These guys and gals are human beings, which means their performance isn’t always a given or a guarantee.
In that aforementioned New York Times piece, several instances in which insider info has assisted sharp bettors were described in lurid detail:
A stadium groundskeeper, for instance, might let them know that the turf was soggy and that the score would probably be low. A locker-room janitor could leak information on which supposedly healthy running back was limping. Insider knowledge could trump dry statistical analysis.
If last night the starting quarterback found out that his wife was sleeping with the center, he is not going to perform like the numbers are saying.“
It’s a lot harder to suss out sports betting secrets today, but with a steady internet connection and a little old-fashioned research, you can easily discover useful intelligence that can be deployed on the sports betting battlefield.
Between the analytics revolution and the dawn of the digital age, the sports betting landscape has evolved by leaps and bounds over the last few years – let alone the last few decades. Bettors have access to more data than ever before, and the gulf between sharps and squares has shrunk considerably as a result.
Even so, you’d be well-served to respect the wisdom of your predecessors, as these old-school sports bettors still have a thing or two to teach us. After all, the original wiseguys out there laid the foundation, paving the path for modern sports wagering enthusiasts to increase their edge through study and strategy.