If you do any serious reading about gambling of any kind, including sports betting, you’ll eventually come across someone talking about “units” or “betting units.” But how much is a “unit” in gambling?
That’s the topic of this post.
What Does “Unit” Mean in a Gambling Context?
Any time a gambling writer talks about a unit, they’re just referring to an arbitrary amount that’s used for bet sizing purposes. For example, if you’re talking with a low roller, a unit might be $1, $5, or $10. If you’re talking with a bigger gambler, a unit might be $100, $1000, or even $10,000.
And, of course, a unit might be any number in-between those, too.
When you’re betting on sports, it’s customary to think of a unit as 1% of your total bankroll.
If you have a $100 bankroll, a unit might be $1.
Serious sports bettors (and other kinds of gamblers) increase or decrease the number of units they’re betting based on how good they feel about the bet. A sports bettor who think a bet is a sure thing might bet 5 units, and a card counter at the blackjack table might bet 3 units, depending on the count.
Recreational gamblers don’t worry so much about gambling units. Discussions of units begin when you start getting serious about stuff like bankroll management, advantage gambling, and betting systems (like the Martingale).
How Units Relate to Bankroll Management in Gambling
What is bankroll management?
What is a bankroll, for that matter?
You can’t read much about sports betting or any other kind of gambling without running across those phrases, too.
Your bankroll is the amount of money you have set aside to gamble with. If you’re a serious gambler, your goal is to avoid going broke. Once you run out of money in your bankroll, you can’t bet anymore, which means you can’t win money until you replenish your bankroll.
On the other hand, if you’re a recreational gambler, your bankroll is just a measurement for how long you can play before going broke. Recreational gamblers are almost always gambling at a mathematical disadvantage, which means that if they play long enough, they’ll surely go broke.
The bigger your bets are in relation to your bankroll, the riskier your gambling is.
And, generally, the bigger your bets are in relation to your bankroll, the more likely you are to go broke — even if you have an edge.
Think about it this way. If you’re a sports bettor and bet 100% of your bankroll on a game that you think “is a sure thing,” what happens if there’s an upset?
You’re broke and have to stop gambling until you get together a new bankroll.
What’s the expression about football games?
There’s an upset on “any given Sunday?”
How to Put Together Your First Gambling Bankroll
Until you have a bankroll, betting units don’t matter.
The first thing you should do if you’re just getting started as a bettor and want to put together a bankroll is analyze how much money it costs you to live. Gambling money should come after you take care of the basics. Yes, this means creating a budget.
Start with your living expenses. You need a place to live, and you need to be able to pay for utilities. You also need to have money set aside for emergencies. Start your emergency savings by getting together $1000 in cash as soon as you can.
Once you have that together, build your emergency kitty up to a month’s worth of living expenses — including food, insurance, and child support. You need to be able to cover a month’s worth of bills if you’re serious about being responsible with your finances.
You should work toward growing that to 3 – 6 months’ worth of bills. That’s what someone in recovery would call “a prudent reserve.”
You should also be maximizing your retirement contributions and paying off your debts. If you can’t afford to do those 2 things, you can’t afford to be placing sports bets.
Once you’ve done that, save for your betting bankroll just like you did your emergency fund.
Then, if you’re a serious bettor, limit the size of your bets to between 1 and 5 units. That’s 1% to 5% of your bankroll. This will prevent you from losing your entire bankroll (or a significant percentage of your bankroll) because of bad luck.
The Kelly Criterion and Betting Units
If you are a serious gambler, and if you are interested in maximizing your return on investment while minimizing your risk of ruin, you should know something about the Kelly Criterion.
You can find complicated explanations of it in various places, including the Wikipedia.
But here’s what you need to know about the Kelly Criterion if you’re a serious gambler:
Betting a percentage of your bankroll that’s the same as your mathematical edge is the best way to manage your bankroll.
In other words, if you’re a sharp sports bettor — one who only bets on an event when she has an edge — you would estimate your edge and bet that percentage of your bankroll. Estimating that edge is the tricky part.
It’s easier for blackjack players who count cards. They have a reasonable idea that their edge over the casino is about 1%, so they know that if they bet 1% of their bankroll as their beginning wager, they’re sticking with the Kelly Criterion.
What about Nickels and Dimes in Sports Betting?
You’ll also often hear seasoned sports bettors talking about betting a “dime” or a “nickel” on a game. You’ll also find tout services which suggest a multiple in terms of how many dimes you should bet on one of their picks. For example, they might say, “This is a 5 dime pick.”
What does all that mean?
A dime bet in sports betting is generally understood to mean a $1000 bet. That would make a nickel bet half that — $500.
A 5-dime bet would be a bet of $5000.
If you want to bet an average of $1000 on a game, you should have a bankroll of $100,000 to play with. Otherwise, you should scale your bet sizes down accordingly.
And, a multiple of dimes indicates how much confidence the bettor or the tout has in that wager. I rarely see anyone recommending that you bet more than 5 dimes on a game.
Also, if you’re not such a high roller, you can just scale the size of your bet down accordingly. If you have a bankroll of $10,000 instead of $1000, you would use $100 as your betting unit. If you were placing a “5 dime bet,” you’d only bet $500 instead of $5000.
A betting unit is just a small percentage of your bankroll that represents the lowest bet that you place. You would describe the size of your bets in terms of units.
Gambling writers and experts use the term “units” so that their examples and suggestions make sense regardless of the size of your bankroll.