The Truth About Sports Betting

May 10, 2007 |

Gambling has been a regular part of human activity since pre-Biblical times. There are written records of gambling activity in ancient Egypt, the world’s first society, and in ancient Greece. There are numerous stories about gambling in the Old Testament of the bible. Gambling came to the United States with the Pilgrim invasion in the 1600s, and flourished in the riverboat era of the 1800s.

As I write this in May 2007, there is at least some form of legalized gambling in 48 of the 50 states. Our nationwide tax base has been boosted substantially by the advent of state lotteries and casino taxation. Clearly, gambling is an activity that tens of millions of U.S. citizens enjoy.

But gambling is such a broad term. It’s hard to clarify exactly what constitutes gambling other than it’s most basic definition: to play at any game of chance for money or other stakes. The stock market is widely considered to be a substantial, serious form of investment, yet players in the stock market are gambling every bit as much as players in a poker game.

Let’s not forget that the stock market is only one piece of the Wall Street equation, with future market investors and day traders behaving very much like seasoned gamblers. State lotteries are rigged so badly against the player that casinos would be prosecuted for swindling if they relied upon the same odds.

Still, just about every casino activity gets lumped into the one term, "gambling." But there is a world of difference between the types of betting activity that casinos rely upon for their ever-growing revenues. "House" games, like roulette, slots, craps, keno and baccarat offer built-in advantages for the casino. Over the long term, bettors will never win at any one of these games.

But gamblers can and do win over the long term. Professional blackjack players exist and thrive, as evidenced by the recent best seller Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, the tale of a group of MIT students who won millions from the casinos thanks to their ability to count cards undetected. Serious video poker players can beat the slot machines as well, concentrating on the positive expectation that growing jackpots produce.

There has been a lot of press in the gambling world lately about whether poker is a game of skill or a game of chance. Recent congressional legislation, the Illegal Internet Gambling Prohibition Act categorized online poker no differently than any other "house advantage" type of casino game. The Poker Players Alliance, more than 100,000 strong, recently hired former New York senator Alphonse D’Amato to lobby Capitol Hill on their behalf, seeking to carve out an exemption for online poker players.

Serious poker players treat their gambling like a full-time job, no different from those betting on Wall Street. While the element of chance in any one poker session is very real, over the long term, superior poker players make money, while weaker players lose. Advantage gamblers utilize poker as one of their primary sources of income. Remember, poker players do not bet against the house – they bet against the other players at their table, with the house taking a small percentage of every pot as compensation for offering an honest, player-friendly gaming environment.

Sports bettors don’t get any of the positive publicity that poker players have gotten in recent years. The enormous popularity of televised poker over the last five years has created a plethora of gambling superstars. These poker celebrities are on top of the gaming world these days: young, intelligent, rich and articulate. Luck might carry a few players to celebrity status, but it’s skill that keeps them at the top of the gambling pecking order.

Sports bettors don’t get any TV time. We have no celebrities. Whereas poker is a group activity played at kitchen tables across the country, sports betting is an individual activity, often taking place with an illegal bookie. And while poker has a whole host of bright young stars, sports bettors still deal with the aging stereotype of degenerate bettors losing a fortune to their mafia-backed bookie each weekend.

There are plenty of losing poker players and no shortage of losing sports bettors. But while the winners in the poker community are internationally recognized celebrities, with a major lobbying organization supporting them in Congress, the winners in the sports betting world have no support group and no positive publicity. Instead, we hear the same tired stories about the compulsive gambler that lost everything, or the guy who bet $10 in his office pool suddenly transforming into a full-blown action junkie.

The reality is that serious sports bettors make money at their craft, year after year. Much like in poker, the sports betting marketplace does not pit the bettor against the house. Rather, the bettor is betting against the entire marketplace, with the house getting their small cut of the action, known as the juice or the vig. The bookies don’t make the pointspreads – the market does; giving the bookmakers their cut.

Of course, the term "serious" is worthy of some discussion here. Some bettors have a great feel for spots, knowing when a team is or isn’t likely to give their best effort over the course of a long season. Other bettors have a great feel for value, knowing when a pointspread is a notch or two above or below where it should be.

But, those two factors aside, most successful bettors spend a great deal of time researching. They comb through every news report they can find, searching for one tidbit of information, one unnoticed injury, an elusive X-factor that turns a 50:50 proposition into a positive-expectation play for the bettor. And sportsbettors churn through databases, looking to identify long-term patterns that are likely to repeat themselves in the future.

Long-term successful bettors rely heavily on their ability to "get the best number", winning games by ½ point instead of losing them by ½ point more often than not. These savvy shoppers bet here in Las Vegas or with an Internet sportsbook instead of relying on the bookie in the local sports bar. Good betting skills can translate into enormous profits, something a casual (a nice euphemism for losing) bettor doesn’t often concern himself with.

Beating sports, poker or any other winnable casino game over the long term is not an easy proposition. Sports betting professionals take their craft very seriously in order to beat the built in edge for the house. Lumping serious sports bettors in with "gamblers" or relying on ancient stereotypes is a common mistake that non-gamblers should try to avoid. The reality is that here in the 21st century, winning sports bettors are every bit the professionals that their Wall Street counterparts are.

Desktop View: Switch to Mobile View