Deciphering the intricacies of sports betting

January 17, 2001 3:13 AM
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QUESTION: I recently move to Las Vegas, and would like to know how sports betting works. Can you give me some basics on the type of bets, etc.?

GAMBLING GURU: Because sports betting requires more skill than luck, astute gamblers and sports handicappers often find ways to beat the house. To compensate, sports books do everything possible to tilt the odds in their favor.

The first method is charging a commission on a sports bet. Commonly referred to as the "house vigorish," the commission is usually 10 percent. This means that a bettor must risk $110 to win $100 betting football or basketball games. (If the bettor wins, the original $110 is returned to him.)

Sports books also set up point spreads to make predicting the outcome of a game more difficult. The point spread, used mainly for football, basketball and hockey betting, is the amount of points a favored team must overcome in order for a bettor to win a bet.

For instance, if a football team is favored by seven points, the team must win by eight or more. If it wins by less than seven points, or loses outright, the bettor loses. If the final score falls on the number, say, 21-14, it is a "push," or tie, and the bet is refunded.

The flip side is that underdogs receive the points and needn’t actually win the game for the bettor to win his bet. In the above example, the underdog can either win the game, or lose by up to six points for its backers to win.

For baseball and hockey bets, the books set odds, or a "money line." (For hockey, most players must contend with a point spread-usually not more than two goals-as well as a money line.)

The money line is a decimal version of betting odds. It is most commonly used in baseball and hockey betting, but it is frequently offered on football bets in lieu of the point spread. Instead of listing a team as a 3-2 favorite, or a 6-7 underdog, the sports books use a plus or minus dollar figure to represent the odds of winning.

A team with a negative money line is the perceived favorite, and its payoff is less than the amount risked. Conversely, if a team has a plus money line, it is considered the underdog and pays more than the amount bet.

For example, a team with a -1.80 money line means you must risk $1.80 in order to win $1, which, added to your original bet, gives you a payoff of $2.80. If the team’s money line were +1.80, a win is worth $1.80 for every $1 bet for a like payoff of $2.80, but at a risk of only $1.

If you’re a mathematician you will have figured out that the plus money line represents odds on the underdog winning, and that the negative money line is the inverse of the odds on the favorite winning. In the above example, the odds on the underdog are 1.80 to 1, and the odds on the favorite are 1 divided by 1.80, or 0.55 to 1.

If this is as confusing to understand as it has been to write, just remember you have to bet the amount of the minus money line to win $1 (or multiples thereof), and that each $1 bet on a plus money line pays off at the stated amount.