Examining sharp's edge to make winning bets

Oct 29, 2013 3:00 AM

I used to play basketball a lot growing up. “The Courts” were a block and a half down the street from my childhood home – and there were around 15 of us kids down there fairly steady.

Most were pretty decent at the game (avoiding how pathetic it would be to spend 10 hours a week doing something and being horrible) – but there was one kid who was awesome. Simply by watching the game for 5 minutes you would know he was different. If he decided, he could stop anyone from scoring – and, if he really wanted to, he could score most anytime.

Years later, this kid would play Division III college ball, which means you likely never saw him play. He fell short by multiple levels from even warranting coverage by ESPN late at night. Now compare that relative basketball success to the success of a professional bettor.

Millions bet sports, and a tiny percentage are good enough to make a living at it. Take a grinder like Vegas pro bettor Bryan Leonard. He’s not world famous, doesn’t receive fan letters with lipstick kisses, but his achievements are on par with an NBA player. And now think about how different a future NBA player would have looked playing with us at The Courts!

So it’s surprising what it’s like to watch Leonard bet sports. A monkey flipping a coin would win 50% of the time in the long-run. Bryan, like almost all professional bettors, wins 55% of the time in the long-run. That small difference is the difference between losing steady versus winning enough to never have to work a straight job ever again. That 5% difference is winning one additional game out of every 20.

Some think a professional sports bettor knows secrets that allow him to be certain who is going to win in certain spots. But an actual example of a sharp’s edge is laying 4½ points when the line should really be 6½. Those extra two points are the culmination of all of his work and skill.

If the game falls 5 or 6, he gets an extra win. Otherwise, in the other 95% of games, his results are just like the average bettors. But those two extra points allow him to win that one extra game in 20.

Consider, though, what such winning results look like. There are many losing days. And there are a surprising number of 3-7 type losing streaks. And there are also much worse streaks – all the way to actual season long losing streaks. Michael Jordan never looked like an average basketball player for extended periods, but that’s exactly how a professional bettor can look for months at a time.

If you have never thought of it this way, don’t feel bad, because even professional bettors themselves struggle with this paradox. I do a lot of radio, and most of the hosts have a casual interest in sports betting, but are far from expert.

Sean Pendergast is a host on the Yahoo National network, and not only is he great at his job, but he’s also on the savvy end of the spectrum when it comes to sports betting. This past weekend we were talking about two NFL underdogs I liked, and he said: “Well, it sounds like the answer is to just play both, and worst case you split.”

Unfortunately, that is far from the case. If he had thought more deeply about it, Sean knows that too, but the idea that world-class expertise could be so random in the short-term is hard for humans to embrace. We’ll discuss the ramifications of that fact to the average sports bettor in next week’s column.

RJ Bell is the founder of Pregame.com - and co-host of FIRST PREVIEW, heard Monday through Friday at 10 am on ESPN 1100/98.9 FM. Follow on twitter: @RJinVegas. Discussion of this article continues at Pregame.com. Contact RJ at [email protected]

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