Line moves: smart money or whims of the public?

August 27, 2002 5:48 AM
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Bettors always want to know what the "smart money" is doing. At the race track, for instance, horse players religiously watch the tote board to see which horse is getting the most play.

In the sports book, players want to know which teams are attracting the smart money. But what constitutes smart money?

Most bettors believe smart money comes from serious gamblers, so-called wise guys, who have discovered or purchased the winning edge and back their opinions with sizable bets.

But, because big bettors seldom publicly announce their selections, many players believe tracking line movements ”” often the result of large wagers ”” is a means of forecasting where the smart money is going.

But following line movements doesn’t necessarily mean you’re following the right path. As often as not, the line movement reflects a swing in the public’s preference and, as just about everyone knows, the public is frequently wrong. In fact, there’s a faction of bettors who like to bet against line movements for that reason!

There’s no simple formula to determine the quality of a line movement. But it might be helpful to examine the results of some NFL games that experienced significant line movements.

Using 197 games that had a line movement of at least a point and a half, if you had bet the side that benefited from the move (the teams that received the money), you would have had 86 wins, 102 losses and nine ties.

Conversely, if you had bet against the line movement, you would have finished 102-86-9 for a 54.3 percent winning record.

Additional study of those games reveal that home teams which had a positive line movement went 44-59-5. If you had bet on the road team and gone away from the line movement, you would have gone 59-44-5, for a 57.3 percent winning record. This would seem to make sense since the public likes to bet home teams, if for no other reason than the home-field advantage.)

Early line movements from Sunday to Tuesday showed similar trends. Home teams that had a line movement of a half point or more went 29-43-3, which also means that if you bet against the line movements, you would have enjoyed a 43-29-3 record for a tidy 59.7 percent win record.

Although not absolute by any means, a reading of this data suggests that line movements more accurately reflect the public’s shifting sentiments, rather than the smart money choices. It’s probably safe to say that the advent of online and off-shore sports betting has contributed to the difficulty in gauging on which teams wise guy money is wagered.

Tracking the movement in game totals, the over/under, reveals a mixed result: betting on totals that moved toward the "over" showed a loss, while betting on totals that moved toward the "under" showed a profit.

For instance, of 82 games in which the total moved by a half point or more toward the over, only 38 actually went over, while 43 went and under and one tied the total. Obviously, if you had bet against the move, your record would have been 43-38-1 for a 53.1 percent win ratio.

Similarly, there were 107 games in which the total moved toward the under. Betting the under in these games would have resulted in 58 wins, 47 losses and two ties, for a 55 percent win ratio.

Moreover, the "under" plays hit at a higher frequency during the last third of the season. Beginning in the 11th week and continuing through the 17th week, betting on movements toward the under would have resulted in a 30-18 record, or a winning rate of 62.5 percent.

What does all this mean? Probably that relying on line movements as a handicapping tool is risky at best. They typically represent the general public’s choice, and the general public seems to be wrong more often than it is correct.

Line movements may serve as indicators, however, and if your early selection seems to have caught the public’s eye, perhaps you should take a closer look at your choice.