The best gamblers — or at least the most creative and ingenious, the kind I relish the chance to exchange ideas with — are not only students of the game but also well-rounded.
Important concepts such as a keen analytical ability, the talent to evaluate a risk and a willingness to take it seem to cross disciplines in gambling.
First example …
Not long ago, I was playing a video poker machine while a veteran sports betting industry insider sat alongside me, looking on. (The session was not “on the record,” though I vowed to write about it in general terms when the opportunity presented itself.)
I played at a leisurely pace to allow our conversation, which centered on solving the world’s problems or something equally trifling, to flow.
The insider, someone whose work I had long respected, was not a video poker player. Certainly he was not at all familiar with this particular form of video poker, which entailed making some fairly complicated decisions based on factors such as the payout table, which cards had been dealt and which remained in the virtual deck.
Yet the industry insider, totally unprompted by me, caught on rapidly. Soon enough, the world’s problems were forgotten as the insider pointed out which cards to hold and which to discard along with a detailed justification for his choices.
We’re talking about plays that are worth pennies, maybe even a fraction of a penny, to a session’s projected bottom line. (Sure, I was familiar with these subtleties. But I was the one playing with my own money. I damn well better have been prepared.)
I wasn’t surprised the industry insider possessed this knowledge, or that his brain worked this way, but it was a pleasure to see it in action as it unfolded in real time. It was like a glance inside a genuine gambling mind — which is a more atypical experience than you might think.
Second example …
At a recent small gathering of sports gamblers, there was one attendee who’s an accomplished poker player but by his own admission knows little about sports betting.
He asked how anyone manages to win at sports considering how tight the lines are, especially in major sports. Coming from poker, he was specifically interested in how sports bettors attempt to quantify their edge.
I figured he had the makings of a well-rounded gambler because he approached the issue with bona fide curiosity rather than an attitude bellowing “my way or the highway” like Joe Cabot in “Reservoir Dogs.”
I’m frequently reminded of Steven Crist’s classic take on hubris: “Those who are losing claim they’re breaking even. Those who are breaking even claim to be way ahead of the game. Those who really do win say very little — except that the game is very humbling … ”
It was also encouraging when the poker guy grasped a clever, off-the-cuff riff by one of the sports bettors. Imagine you bet every NBA game, he said, randomly choosing a side against the consensus point spread. You could expect to get half right and lose money thanks to the vig. Now go down the same list of games and move the line, say, a point and a half in your favor. That alone could be enough to move your hypothetical betting ledger over the line into positive territory.
Follow-up question: How often do you get a chance to bet into lines that are so far “off?”
The answer: All the time, if you know what you’re doing — especially if you’re exceptional at handicapping, predicting line moves, shopping for point spreads or all of the above.
Another way to phrase it is to acknowledge the difficulty of winning at sports by betting into widely available lines laying the standard vig, but then asking, “Who the hell bets into widely available lines?”
And one counterpoint …
Too many sports bettors, by contrast, are not well-rounded gamblers. For whatever reason I’m always a bit disappointed when in the midst of a conversation with a sports bettor, someone I respect otherwise, I discover he lacks an understanding even of the rudiments of poker or blackjack, or chess or finance, for that matter. It just seems as if there’s something vital missing.
Plenty of sports bettors think they know a lot about sports — and they’re right. They do. (I’ve heard them called “Pete Rose types,” which probably fits on more than one level.)
In this day and information age, it’s pretty easy to accumulate a ton of knowledge about the current sports scene (although individuals with an informed, nuanced view of sports history are still quite rare).
That’s not enough, though. It’s all too typical to hear someone present an incredibly detailed dissertation on why four particular teams are going to cover the spread … then turn around and structure the wager as a four-team parlay at a huge statistical disadvantage.
My challenge to these Pete Rose types is to construct a logical, coherent argument as to why you’re a favorite to get back more money than you risk.