Adventures in sports betting

Happy Thanksgiving, friends.  Today, I’m thankful for being on vacation, which basically has amounted to two different vacations.  My girlfriend and I flew into Las Vegas Friday afternoon, stayed there through Monday morning, and then drove over to Los Angeles, which is about a 4.5-hour drive.  My brother Chris lives in LA, and he and his wife recently welcomed a new Broncos fan to the world, so we’re doing Turkey Day in SoCal.

Today, I wanted to focus on the Vegas part, because it relates to football.  Really, I want to talk about gambling.  I would say that I’m a reasonably smart guy, and I hold two bachelors degrees and just finished my MBA.  My first degree was in finance, and that’s a fairly math-centric discipline, but the math isn’t difficult.  It’s algebra-based, and it mostly revolves around probability.

From that book learnin’, one thing I know is that over a long enough time period, sports betting is a surefire loser.  The reason why that’s the case is that on straight bets, sports books get you into asymmetric bets, where what you stand to win (if you win) is less than what you stand to lose (when you lose).

Take this example – say the Patriots are favored by seven points against the Jets tonight.  I want to bet $20 on the Patriots to win by more than the seven (or, as gamblers say, “I’m laying the seven.”)  I go pay the casino $20, and I get back a little piece of paper.  If I win, I get paid $18.20, on top of getting my $20 back.  If I lose, I’m out the $20.

The books set the lines to try to drive 50% of the action to each team, and they win by keeping $1.80 of every $20 bet on the losing team, which, again, is roughly half the bets.  They’re guaranteed to make money on straight bets if they balance the action correctly.

Another popular way to bet is called the money line.  With that, neither team is giving or taking points, but the payouts for a straight-up win are different.  For example, for that same Jets-Patriots game, the Patriots are -274, and the Jets are +246.

What that means is that if you bet $100 on the Jets to win outright, and they do, you win $246.  Conversely, in order to win $100 on the Patriots winning outright, you have to bet $274.  The money line is another asymmetric bet, and it’s one that’s usually taken on the underdog, because you can bet a little and win a lot.

If Vegas is effectively saying that the Patriots are a 2.46-to-1 favorite, and you think the Jets have a better chance to win than 1 in 2.46 (40.65%), then you might bet on the Jets, money line.

So that’s the concepts at play in this article.  Let me reiterate, I don’t bet on sports.  I know it’s a dumb thing to do, and that I’ll lose at it, and that it will piss me off.

This past weekend in Vegas, I bet on some sports.  One reason was because my girlfriend, Laura, wanted to, and I was wanting to participate with what she wanted to do, and another reason was because I thought it might yield an interesting article.  Here goes with that.


On Saturday morning, we got up, and Laura wanted to bet on Ohio State against Wisconsin.  Wisconsin was favored by three points at home, and on the money line, OSU was +120.  We each bet $20 on OSU, with the money line.  We stood to collect $44 for the win ($24 for the win, and our original $20 back), and our loss was limited to $20.

This was a good, low-risk way to dip our foot in the water on a game that had a good chance of paying us.  I think OSU is about the 15th-best team in the country, but they’re undefeated because they play in the overrated Big 10, which is having a down year.  They’d get thrashed by at least six SEC teams, and also by Kansas State, Oregon, Notre Dame, and Stanford, and they’d likely lose to a few other teams. Wisconsin has some talent, but hasn’t had their normal season.

Laura was upstairs taking a nap on Saturday afternoon, because the time change had messed her up the night before.  I sat in the Monte Carlo sports book, where we stayed, and watched games.  While watching the OSU-Wisconsin game, I started to like a couple of games.

I was pretty convinced that K-State was going to smoke Baylor, and I thought that Oklahoma versus West Virginia was a shootout that could go either way.  The game I really liked, from an asymmetric bet perspective, was Stanford over Oregon.

I was talking to some random old guy about it; he was a USC fan from LA, and was adamant that Oregon was going to beat Stanford by 35 points.  (The line was 20.5, which seemed way too high to me.)  I don’t watch a lot of West Coast football, but as a football guy, I was thinking that Stanford’s ability to play with physicality, and man up in every gap, boded well for defending Oregon’s spread-out running game.

I was all set to bet Stanford to win outright with the money line, at +550.  My $20 bet would have yielded $110 in payout.  Old Man River talked me out of it.  The bastard.  I ended up betting $20 on K-State to lead by more than seven at halftime, and $20 more on West Virginia with the money line, at +350.

Around this time, OSU won in overtime, so I was up $24.  Yay!

It wouldn’t last.  K-State got out to a big early deficit, and OU went up early on WVU, too.  I woke up Laura, and we headed out to get dinner at Golden Steer, which is a fantastic old-time steakhouse on Sahara.  I lost my K-State bet, and WVU was getting back into the game against Oklahoma.  I kept monitoring that, because I stood to win $70 on a $20 bet there, and that was exciting.  When we finished up at Golden Steer, I was up $4, and feeling pretty good about WVU.

We had discounted tickets to see Andrew Dice Clay at the Riviera (I grew up on the Diceman, and he was still funny), and we had two hours to kill, so I took Laura downtown to see Fremont Street, and we played craps at Binion’s.  I won $22 after playing on $60 for an hour, so that was cool.

As we were getting ready to head back to the Strip, OU scored a TD on fourth-and-goal from the five, to take a 50-49 lead over WVU.  There went my $70 win.  I was down $16 at that point, with no more bets on for Saturday.  What the hell?  I was up $22 from craps, right?  I had that game right, and I came out slightly on the wrong side of it, but it was still a smart asymmetric bet.


My buddy Tony Orsini from Norwich, CT (I’ve mentioned him before over the years) sends out an email to his football-interested friends each week with a gambling pick.  Since I don’t gamble on sports, I just view it as an interesting read.  Since I was in Vegas, and was gambling on sports, I decided to play his pick.  He loved the Jets as a +3 underdog against the Rams.

I never love the Jets, but I bet them, on the money line, +165.  My $20 bet would pay off $53 if I won.  I also took the Eagles over the Redskins, for $20 on the money line, at +170.  I just kind of had a feeling that Philly’s talent advantage might win for me.

Nope.  Washington jumped out to a big lead, and never looked back.  The Jets were doing their part, though, and they cruised to victory.  With the $20 loss on Philly, and the $33 win on the Jets, I was down $3 after the early games.  That feels a lot like breaking even!  Now we’re cooking with gas!

As a Connecticut native, I’m a big UConn Huskies basketball fan, and they're off to a good start this year.  They were playing Quinnipiac on Sunday night, and they were giving 10 points.  Quinnipiac is a school in Connecticut that’s good at polling, and not so good at basketball.  UConn always dominates in-state teams, so I felt good about laying the 10 points for $40.

More immediately, though, the Broncos were going to play the Chargers.  I really liked the Over of 48 points, and I bet $20 on it.  So did Laura, and she made a couple of other bets on other games.  I also liked the Broncos, laying eight points.  I put $40 on that.

The first half saw a lot of Broncos errors on offense, and a completely dominant Broncos defense.  The good guys led 17-7 at the half, which was half of my Over bet, and I was already winning by more than eight.  Things were looking good.  I was fired up.

I went to the window, and bet another $50 on the Broncos to win the second half by more than three points.  As good as the Broncos defense looked, I doubted the Chargers could even score three points.

I kind of have a lot of money out there, for someone who doesn’t bet on sports.  If I hit the Over, the minus-eight bet for the game, and the minus-three bet for the second half, I’ll be collecting $206.20.  If UConn covers, as they should, make that $76.35 more.

I was feeling pretty good when the Broncos took their 30-16 lead with about five minutes to go, even though they’d given up a safety, plus a stupid touchdown when they started being conservative on defense.  At that point, I was winning on all my bets, except the Over.

Laura had the Colts over the Patriots on the money-line, and yeah, not so much.  She was excited for the Over on the Broncos game, though.  I was rooting against the Over at that point, and she couldn’t understand why. 

I wanted no more scoring, because even a field goal by the Chargers would make me lose my second-half bet.  A TD by them would make me only win the Over, and lose the other two.  Of course, the coaching psychology at play is to play loose while up two touchdowns and make the Chargers take time in going down the field.

Laura:  Well, what if the Chargers score, and then the Broncos score?  Then we both win.

Me:  The Broncos are done trying to score.  They’re trying to run the clock out.  They don’t really care if the Chargers score.

Laura:  But they might try to score if they get the ball back.

Me:  No, that’s not how it works.  If the Chargers score, I’m screwed.

Laura:  But at least we win on the Over!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Consider each exclamation point to be representative of a unit of frustration by me with this conversation.  Typically, she doesn’t come near me when a Broncos game is on, because I’m working.  It’s not a social experience for me.

In that case, she’s talking, and so is this asshole Chargers fan, who’s thrilled to see me looking like I may not be covering.  And there went Danario Alexander for his second TD.  Damn it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Broncos recovered the onsides kick, and ran three times into the line.

Laura:  Why don’t they throw the ball and try to score?

Me:  (angrily) That’s not the $^#%ing way coaching psychology works.  The Broncos coaches don’t care if I cover my bets, they only care about winning the game, which is the appropriate motivation.  This is why sports betting is stupid.

Laura:  (cheerily) Well at least we win on the Over bet!

Me:  :::shooting her daggers::::

Yeah, we won on the Over bet.  Whoopty-damn-doo.  I collected my $38.20, we went to get dinner,  and then we went to see Jersey Boys at Paris (it was excellent).  I was now down $54.80, and I was pissed off.  At least I still had UConn, right?

They trailed in the second half, to damn Quinnipiac, and they ended up winning by six in overtime.  Against damn Quinnipiac.  Damn it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 

I finished down $94.80 on my sports betting adventure.  Add in the $22 I won on craps, $10 I lost staking Laura on craps, and $90 in entry fees I paid for us to play in a poker tournament, and my net gambling loss was $172.80.

I’ve lost more money in Vegas than that before, and I make significantly more money now than I ever have.  Why was I so upset?

I was upset because I know better.  I was upset because sports betting is a stupid rollercoaster ride, where the odds are stacked against you, and where the players and coaches are just trying to win, and not to cover.  They don’t care about covering.

My teams (the Broncos and UConn) won, and I was pissed off that they didn’t win by enough.  I was pissed off that my knowledge of football didn’t help me win money on it.  That’s stupid, and it makes me enjoy sports less.  I think next time, I’ll just stick to craps, poker, and blackjack.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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Ted's Analysis