Sports Betting – A Primer

Or, “How to lose money by bad betting instead of not knowing what you’re doing…”

Sports betting is confusing to the uninitiated. Let’s get that out in the open right away. “But Chris,” I hear you cry. “Don’t I just pick a team I think will win, put some money on it and then wait for the result?”

Well, yes and no. At its most simple, that’s the essence of sports betting. What you’ve just described is the money line, or outright. See? Two terms for the same thing. Confusing already. This is what any betting operator deals in. Vegas purposefully makes casinos confusing places to be (maze-like interiors, no clocks, free drinks…) and betting websites ply you with options that they can market as “consumer choice” but is really designed to keep those who don’t know, out of the know. So I’ll try to shine a little light on matters, so that when you see my weekly spread picks, you’re not caught blind thinking “uhhh…?”. I will assume, of course, that you know what a stake is, and the difference between winning and losing. I mean, you’re reading 3 Legs 4th Down, so you’re clearly a winner in our books…

Single games betting

Sports betting basically comes in three flavours for single games: spread, over/under, money line. Imagine the following, taken from an operator for Redskins @ Giants in week 3:

Team Spread O/U Money Line
Washington +3 45 +145
New York -3 -165

Let’s break this down bit by bit,

Spread: This is one of the most common forms of betting for the NFL, and it deals with not only who is the favourite to win, but by how much. If a team has a + by their number, it means they’re an underdog, and are expected to lose by the amount of points in the number. In this case, 3. So if you were to add 3 points to their score, Vegas expects a tie. If there is a – by the number, it means they’re the favourite in the matchup, and subtracting this number from the final score would result in a tie. Teams will be said to “cover the spread” if the adjustment results in their victory – so a losing team can cover by losing by less than expected (i.e. if Washington lost by 1 or 2, or even tied outright or won, they would cover) or by winning by more than expected (i.e. if New York won by more than 3). You are not necessarily betting on who will win in this instance. If the adjustment results in a tie, the bet is said to be a “push” and you get your stake back. Betting on the underdog is called taking the points (because you take extra points that a team did not score), and betting on the favourite is called swallowing the points (because you need to “swallow” a loss of points).

Over/Under (O/U): More popular in other sports betting, but gradually increasing in popularity in American Football is the over/under, a bet placed that completely disregards the winner or loser, and is simply on the number of points scored. In the 40s is a common O/U in the NFL, so our example sits right in the middle. It simply means that Vegas thinks the total amount of points scored, whether through touchdowns, field goals, safeties or any other means is 45, and you place a bet on whether you think it’ll be more or less. Think it’ll be a defensive showdown? Take the under. Think it’ll be a shootout with both teams scoring on most of their trips to the red zone? Take the over. Most O/U bets feature even odds, so you’ll win your stake back, plus that amount again (e.g. £10 down results in £20 back). You will occasionally see an operator favour one over the other, but the odds variance is usually minuscule, resulting in about 5p per pound bet.

Money Line: This is also known as the outright, and is the simplest bet you can think of. So of course, operators find ways of confusing matters by presenting the information in different ways. Here in the UK we’re used to a fractional format, e.g. 2/1 (where a victory will result in your stake back + double that amount) or 1/2 (where a victory results in you getting back your stake and half that amount). In America, the most commonly used format is the money line. And it’s actually simpler than it looks. Again we have the +/- denoting the favourite and underdog, and this time the numbers represent results of a bet of 100. When you bet 100 on the underdog, you will get back your stake, plus the amount in the money line – in this case 145, for a total of 245 back. If you bet on the favourite, the meaning is slightly different – this time, you have the bet the amount in the money line to get 100 back on your stake. So if you bet a 165 stake on New York, you’d get 265 back in total. It looks more on paper but don’t forget you had to put down more initially.

If you’re having trouble working with money line odds, and the operator has no option to switch to fractional (or the opposite is true), you can use this tool to handily convert between the common three odd systems (including decimal, which we’ve not covered here as it isn’t that common). You can also input the stake you’re thinking of putting down to see your potential return. Using this tool, we can see that in our example, Washington are 29/20 to win, and New York are 20/33.

You can actually do a little maths to work out what Vegas thinks the score will be. Over/under of 45, with a 3 point spread? New York are favoured to win, 24-21. It doesn’t always provide extra insight, but it can definitely help you visualise the game, and put the O/U into context.

Multiple Betting

So you’ve gotten the hang of single betting, and you want to add a little extra excitement to the proceedings, or increase your potential return on the same stake. Step forth the multiple. It’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin – a selection of multiple bets – but with a twist. As each game finishes, your winnings from the first are then automatically bet on the next game up. Every single choice must win to get your payout – one wrong choice and it’s bye-bye stake.

Multiples come in many flavours, depending on how many bets are stacked. Doubles and Trebles are pretty self-explanatory (2 bets, 3 bets), and anything more is commonly referred to as an “x-fold accumulator” (e.g. a 4-fold accumulator is 4 bets). You can take any kind of bet and mix them with any other in an accumulator – outright, o/u, spread – and you can even mix & match your sports. Just be aware that as well as an increased payout (a set of 5 heavy favourites could turn into a 44/10 payout, which is a moneyline of +440) they also carry heavily increased risk.

It’s all over to you now. This column isn’t intended to give advice on whom to place a bet, but merely to help you find your way in a confusing sea. Oh, and one final piece of advice – don’t be loyal to any particular operator. Find the one that gives the best odds for the match you’re interested in. Vegas thinks your team is 3/1, but your usual operator is only offering 2/1? Find somewhere else. Spread is -3 for the winner, but your operator is offering -4 instead? Walk away. Rule of thumb for spread betting:

  • If you’re taking the points, find an operator giving you as many points as possible. The more points given, the more likely you’ll be to cover.
  • If you’re swallowing points, find an operator asking you swallow as few points as possible – being asked to swallow 2 instead of 3 makes for a more likely bet.

Disclaimer: 3 Legs 4th Down reminds you to always gamble responsibly. Gambling should be fun, and not all-consuming. If you think you have a problem, please stop immediately and seek help. Gamblers in the UK can seek help at Gamcare. Other regions please check with your local governments and authorities for who to contact. Check the laws concerning gambling in your area, and do not gamble illegally. 3 Legs 4th Down offers the above as opinion only, and is not set in stone – we are not responsible for your wins and losses.