Going against the squares

Nov 9, 2004 12:15 AM

Talk to sports bettors and you’ll often hear references to "squares" and "sharps" with the pontificators almost always believing themselves to be in the latter category.

"Squares" are people who just aren’t sophisticated in how they analyze a matchup, playing the favorite way more frequently than betting an underdog.

These folks are heavily swayed by the most recent game of a team when estimating ability.

They like teams with good offenses and star players more than those with good defense.

The message is: "Squares are just ignorant." If they win, it’s because they got lucky and defied the odds. If they lose, it’s what they deserve. Unlike "sharp" bettors.

Of course, many so-called "sharp" bettors don’t attain the results they crave in their own wagering!

Could it be this dichotomy of player classes comes about as a bit of a defense mechanism, reminiscent of the banter at a horse race where after the fact the handicapper will admit his horse did not run well, but says cheerfully he got "good value" on the odds.

Still, there are a number of people and places trying to track the selections of the "public" in the belief that going against them will be a profitable venture.

Just as some sports bettors are constantly searching for line moves believing they can "follow the smart money/the big bettors/etc."

And then there’s a new class of handicapper who wants to do the exact opposite of the masses, trusting that the public loses in the long run.

One interesting and free tool you can use for judging large scale public thinking is the Yahoo! Pro Football Pick’Em game.

While we cannot attest to the seriousness of these picks (there appears to be no money involved) the advantage of looking at that server is the sheer number of people playing the games. You are truly getting the consensus opinion of the common gambler.

Yahoo breaks out the pick distributions four ways, by the rules of the game setup:

”¡ Straight-up picks, no confidence weights

”¡ Spread picks, no weights

”¡ Straight-up picks, with confidence points

”¡ Spread picks, with confidence points

Weighing the game tends to change the perspective on who to choose. People trivially concerned peg a side as worth one point if right, compared to a top game value of 16 on a full schedule.

Through the first eight weeks on Yahoo, the public is 52-60 (46 percent) against the spread. This seems to prove that every choice would be slightly profitable. However, if you had looked to beat the "super square" public picks this season, where 70 percent or more of the public went the same way, you would be just 10-20!!

The public’s best bets have been fantastic in 2004. This may well be an aberration over the course of years, but this season it’s the "tough call" games where the consensus choice only gets between 50-64 percent of the votes. In other cases, the public has been getting hammered: 23-39 (37 percent).

We also observed that the public sides with the favorite in 93 of the 112 games (83 percent).

This is particularly true with large favorites laying more than a field goal (favorite 64-6, 91 percent).

Delving deeper, it is easy to think the tables will turn on the public success. The history of the NFL shows underdogs winning a disproportionate share of games. In particular, the majority of the one-sided public looks have been taking away favorites — a wager notorious for being a long-term bad option.

We advise that if you can get your hands on who the public as a group is picking this week and to what voting level, there’s reason to take a stand against the conventional thinking.

The next best option is to develop a method that can accurately assess the likelihood of how the public is leaning.

Imagine for instance a game where 80 percent of the public takes a big favorite only to see them lose outright.

Chances are good that the next time the team plays, the public support will have dwindled regardless of the opposition or line.

On the other hand when the public heavily backs a team and it wins for fun, you’ll find more bettors climbing the bandwagon.

In summary, being armed with the knowledge of how the casual football fan sees a matchup may help.

If the San Diego, Philadelphia, and New England continue to put together one strong effort after another, the public will be smiling.

Likewise, if the Raiders, Dolphins, and 49ers continue to get shelled, the public will be flush with extra cash for holiday shopping.

Maybe the definition of NFL "squares and sharps" is simple: "Squares" believe there’s an order to pro football.

The wins and losses tell an honest tale to those who will listen.

"Sharps" believe the NFL is one big ball of chaos, and all is not as it seems!