Note to sports bettors: 55-45 a legitimate edge for wagering

Jun 5, 2012 3:10 AM

I re-named my weekly column “Wiseguy Report” due to the boatload of questions about “wiseguy” bettors – the individuals and syndicates that legitimately do battle with the books with a steady diet of four- and five-figure bets.

Wiseguys, also known as “sharps,” are guys who make their living beating the books and the betting markets.

This week: The single biggest difference between the approach of wiseguys compared to “recreational players” or “squares.” Part II will appear next week.

Most casual bettors don’t make a profit from their sports betting hobby. This includes bettors who are relatively sharp as well as those who couldn’t pick a winner if their life depended on it.

That’s not a horrible thing either – if every bettor won, sports books would be going belly up and bettors would run out of places to play. Look no further than Cantor Gaming as a prime example of what happens when the sharps beat the books over the long term.

Cantor’s books here in Vegas – The M, Palms, Cosmopolitan, Venetian, Hard Rock, Tropicana and Palazzo – have actively courted wiseguy bettors with a diverse menu of available bets, extremely high limits and the best in-game wagering technology in the world thanks to their legendary “Midas” algorithm. Given the financials now available to the public, it’s clear that it’s not easy even for a Wall Street firm with deep pockets and fantastic software to earn a profit facing off against many of the best bettors in the world.

The casual sports bettor doesn’t know many “wiseguy” names. The biggest “sharp” bettor of them all, the legendary Billy Walters, became legendary not because of his amazing success betting on sports, but because of his ability to beat the Feds in multiple criminal trials.

Another famous sharp, my good friend Steve Fezzik, didn’t earn a lick of publicity until he started winning public contests, most notably back-to-back No. 1 finishes in the famed Hilton Supercontest. The vast majority of sharp bettors and sharp syndicates are quiet and out-of-the-spotlight; guys you’re not likely to meet hanging around in local sportsbooks.

So what makes a so called “sharp” bettor different from a “recreational player?” The single biggest difference between the two groups of players is in terms of expectations! Sharps expect to win, while most recreational players do not. But when we talk about winning percentages, the general public really has no idea of how and how much sharp bettors are actually winning.

In 1997, as I was contemplating a move to Las Vegas to bet professionally, I enjoyed a 63% season in the NFL. Yet on my last visit to Vegas before moving here, I was inundated with ads that showed touts who were winning at a 70%, 80% or even 90% clip.

At the time, I didn’t have the experience to know those numbers were completely bogus; much like many amateur bettors and beginning bettors today. My confidence in my own handicapping abilities was truly shaken by those tout claims.

Of course, after living in Vegas for a few years, I realized nobody – not even the best bettors on earth – can win even two out of three (67%) of their sports wagers over the long term; let alone 70%, 80% or 90%. Bettors can and do get hot, enjoying highly profitable streaks, but those streaks don’t last forever.

I personally am guilty of advertising my short term streaks as much as anybody else who sells plays to earn a portion of their living. For example, I’ve got a play for sale for Game 5 of the Thunder-Spurs series.

Rather than highlighting a long term 126-89 (58.6%) track record in the NBA Playoffs over the last five years, I’m highlighting a current short term 7-1 (87.5%) run here in the Conference Finals. Why? Because marketing short term hot streaks sells more plays than marketing long term success does, plain and simple. Frankly, that shouldn’t be the case!

Over a multi-year period, you won’t find many bettors posting 60%-plus winning marks in any single sport, let alone across all sports. According to Fezzik, a five-year track record of 55% winners in any sport is the sports betting equivalent of the Holy Grail. The ability to win just 11 out of 20 bets, long term, is enough for wiseguy bettors to grind out a substantial profit!

Winning 55% long term doesn’t sound very sexy to casual players, especially after years of psychological conditioning from the bold headlines of tout ads. And the rise in popularity of poker over the past decade hasn’t helped the thought process one iota. In poker, we call 55-45 decisions a coin flip; like when pocket queens face off against Ace-King all-in pre-flop.

But in sports betting, a 55-45 percentage split is called a legitimate edge. Sharp bettors are generally less interested in making big scores than they are in grinding out a profit. Going back to the poker analogy once again, most sharp sports bettors are the moral equivalent of John Turturro’s “slow and steady wins the race” Knish character from the famous poker movie “Rounders,” as opposed to Matt Damon’s mercurial Mike McDermott character.

Winning 11 out of 20 long term allows the sharpest of the sharps to grind out a substantial profit, year after year. Winning sports bettors – even guys who earn six- and seven-figure yearly incomes from their wagers alone – are grinders, often making hundreds of wagers per week.

They are certainly not “get rich quick” guys, in sharp contrast to what tout ads might lead you to believe.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about sharp bettors is many are not what we would call “fundamental” handicappers. Instead, they are “math” guys, looking for the type of positive expectation wagers that have proven to be profitable in the long term.

Sharp bettors are certainly concerned with wins and losses, but their No. 1 concern is more about betting into good numbers. Many sharps couldn’t name three players from Alabama’s national champion football team or Kentucky’s national title basketball team, but they fully understood the value those schools offered on the way to the title; backing them repeatedly with substantial profits to show for it.

For a prime example of “math-driven betting” look no further than Sunday Night’s Celtics-Heat Game 4 overtime showdown. Boston opened as a 1-point favorite offshore and at a pick ‘em price here in Las Vegas.

Sharp money poured in on the Heat, driving the line up to Miami -2; even -2.5 in a few locations. At that price point, the sharps stopped betting Miami and started betting Boston. What was a good bet for one side at +1 or pick ‘em became a good bet for the other side once the point spread ratcheted up to -2.

Next week, I’ll break down the five biggest differences between sharps and squares in terms of their approach to sports betting.

Ted Sevransky has been betting sports for a living in Las Vegas since 1998. Follow him on twitter @teddy_covers.