I want to say this right up at the top: most people aren’t going to beat the sportsbook with any consistency. You can beat the sportsbook from time to time through sheer luck. But thanks to vig and the variance baked into sports markets, and the fact that the bookmaker owns the marketplace, sportsbooks are moneymaking enterprises.
The tips in this post won’t turn you into a can’t-lose sports bettor overnight, but they can help you limit your losses and leverage those few times when you’re at an advantage into something like a successful betting system.
At the very least, you can turn your expensive sports betting habit into a more manageable recreational expense by sticking to the tips in this post.
Stick to Positive EV Bets
When I say “positive expected value bets,” I just mean wagers that have a greater chance of winning than implied by the odds offered by a sportsbook.
Expected value is a long-term average of the value of the bet. Most of the time, this is explained in terms of a coin flip. Since the probability of both heads and tails winning is 50%, an expected value bet on a coin flip would have to look something like this:
For every $10 you bet on Heads, your expected profit is $0.50. For every $10 you bet on Tails, your expected loss is $0.60.
A bet on Heads, in this layout, would represent a positive expectation. Betting on Heads would be profitable even though Heads has a 50% chance of losing on each flip.
This simple explanation shows how the goal of sports betting isn’t to win every single bet but to place bets that have a positive expected value. There’s no point in betting on Tails, as it’s described above since over time you’ll be losing money. In the context of this made-up coin flip betting market, the positive EV bet is the bet on Heads.
Let’s use a made-up NFL game to illustrate what finding positive EV looks like for sports bettors.
Imagine the Cincinnati Bengals are listed as -150 favorites on the money line against the visiting Steelers. An average Joe likes the way the Bengals are playing at home this season, and he agrees with what he sees as the sportsbook’s “opinion” that the Bengals are likely to win. He drops $100 on the game and moves on down the line.
That’s not how a bettor looking for a positive EV bet sees the game.
Hunting for EV means realizing that a line of -150 implies the Lions have a 60% chance of victory. But you think these Steelers have a greater than 40% chance of upsetting the home team, so you investigate further. The Steelers are getting +130 as underdogs on the money line, which is an implied winning chance of 43.48%. But by your estimation, the Steelers have at least a 50% chance of winning.
Congratulations, you’ve just found value. The value in this bet, by your handicapping system, lies with a bet on the underdog.
Sports bettors who look for positive EV think further than which team will win outright. They’re thinking about all the various scenarios that can play out and judging on the fly which of them is the most likely to occur. When comparing those chances to the available odds, a positive expectation appears.
Sportsbooks want us to bet with our emotions. Betting only in situations where you find positive expectation means betting with everything but.
Bet Early and Beat the Closing Line
Odds offered right before a game starts are called the closing line. This line reflects a weeks’ worth of news, injury reports, public opinion, and bets. The last line offered should be the best, the one that most closely resembles a bet’s true odds. That’s because books are constantly adjusting odds from the time of release to the closing line.
One thing that sets successful sports bettors apart is their ability to beat the closing line. Beating a closing line means getting a better number than was available at the market’s most efficient point, immediately before gametime.
By betting early, and only in situations where you find positive EV, you put yourself in a position to beat the book more frequently. Locking in long odds early is the easiest way to take advantage of shifting lines.
But it won’t work all the time. Research by Pinnacle Sports indicated that only about 1/3 of lines in the UK were longer than the closing line. Assuming a similar number in American sports, it’s clear that attempting to lock in longer odds will be frustrating.
Make Only No Juice or Reduced Juice Bets
Sportsbook vig typically costs 5% of the betting line. This is the infamous -110 number that forces the break-even point for sports bets up to 52.38%.
An easy way to beat the sportsbook is to avoid paying their fees. The big downside here is that you’ll have way fewer options for betting.
Glancing through the college football odds offered by one of my sportsbooks, I can find maybe a dozen reduced juice offers, and most of these are -105, not even odds. Their NBA lines are even less accommodating, with exactly zero bets available better than -110. I was able to find one NFL bet with zero juice, taking the Chargers away at Denver. I know off the top of my head that the Broncos are terrible at home this season, so that bet may offer some positive EV.
There’s a benefit to paying -105 over -110; specifically, your break-even point at -105 is 51.2%, more than 1% lower than at the standard -110.
If you were to include -105 lines in this hunt for reduced or no juice, you’d have a very limited number of choices. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – some bettors have small bankrolls or intentionally focus on just one or two bets per week. If that’s you, hunting for no juice bets makes a lot of sense, provided you don’t have too much loyalty to any one team, division, or league.
Bet in Small Markets
When I was a teenager, I was a huge baseball card collector. Back then, the price of a pack of cards hovered around $1. When a new product launched at $5 a pack, it was seen as the ultimate luxury item among us young collectors.
I had an edge over my friends. The little grocer-deli around the corner from my house was run by an older Korean man who didn’t know anything about American culture and wasn’t exactly tied into the retail marketplace either. He put those $5 packs up for sale at the standard $1 price, unaware of the market forces driving the costs ever upward. I raked in pack after pack and blew my friends’ minds.
I mention that story because you can do the same kind of thing as a sports bettor.
Most bettors want to put money on NFL point spreads and baseball money lines. They like the Yankees, they like the Cowboys, and they may not know much else about the sport. Baseball and football are massively popular sports, and the biggest teams in those leagues are global brands drawing in billions of dollars annually.
There’s value in small markets. Sports outside the “big four” don’t draw much attention from fans but still earn odds releases from the sportsbooks. Betting on the WNBA is a good example – most sportsbooks aren’t experts on the women’s league, so the lines are soft.
This doesn’t just apply to entire sports leagues. You can usually find a small team without much of a fanbase and leverage your knowledge of that team or that market against a weak sportsbook line. This is especially true in large leagues like college football or basketball, where tiny schools without much media representation can sometimes have a huge impact on the sport at large.
Another way to think about it – you can become an expert in an obscure sport or league and in very little time be more educated about that market than the book taking your bets. That would almost guarantee positive EV situations, and combined with soft lines, you could make a lot of money betting on something weird like darts or cycling.
Good sports bettors are always learning.
Following new strategies, tracking their bets, absorbing sports news and trends – these are the tactics of sports bettors who luck out and beat the sportsbook. Pay for the advice of touts or consult psychics all you want, the habits described above are the only things that can immediately push you in the direction of beating the book.