Halftime lines: How books set them, and how sharps bet them

Jan 12, 2015 |
Halftime lines: How books set them, and how sharps bet them
Oddsmakers have only minutes to come up with the best numbers before halftime, often times for multiple games all going into the break at once.
Photo By - USA Today Images
Oddsmakers have only minutes to come up with the best numbers before halftime, often times for multiple games all going into the break at once.
Photo By - USA Today Images
Halftime lines are an intriguing option in the world of sports betting, as are the processes and strategies involved in setting and betting those lines.

The good word on the sports wagering street is that nobody has them down better than Scott Kaminsky, sportsbook director of offshore book TheGreek.com. Covers found that to be quite true when, in a Sunday morning interview, Kaminsky provided a live primer – literally setting a second-half line and total for a college basketball game while on the phone.

“The game total was 123, the first half was 57. Subtract those two and that gives you 66,” Kaminsky quickly calculates. “So that’s your starting point. Looking at the game, you’ve got a 14-point favorite tied at the half. A 14-point favorite that is tied or behind at the half will give a slight edge to the ‘Over’ in the second half.

“All things being equal, the total would be 66. I might use 65. But now that the two teams have scored 80 in the first half, you’ve got to pump up the second half. So I’ll make the second-half total 69.5, and the favorite is -8.5.”

And there you have it, from an expert more than three decades in the making.

But it’s not all as simple as that. Kaminsky, who prides himself on having halftime lines out first and who deals with a lot of sharp money, couldn’t delve too deep into his trade secrets, though what he offered was indeed revealing.

First and foremost, except in very rare situations, a halftime line is its own animal. While the second-half line and total are made off the closing line and total, for the most part those numbers ignore the book’s liability on pregame action.

“To me, a halftime line is a completely separate entity,” Kaminsky said. “It will rarely be made on what the liability of the game is. You can use the second half to lessen your liability, but rarely.”

Then, coincidentally, he provided an example of the rare circumstance: Saturday’s Carolina Panthers-Seattle Seahawks NFL playoff game, which Seattle led 14-10 at halftime.

“I took too much on the Seahawks. So I was rooting for that field goal the Panthers made at the half, because if they didn’t get that, the score would’ve been 14-7,” Kaminsky said. “We took a lot of money (on the whole game) at Seattle -12.5/13. At 14-7, the halftime line probably would have been 6, and I wouldn’t have been able to take any money on the underdog. So, say the second-half line comes at 6.5. If the underdog bettors take 6.5, and the second half lands on 6, I lose that to the ‘dog bettors, and I lose (or push) all the Seattle full-game bets.

“But since it was 14-10, I let the dog bettors take 7,” he added, noting Seattle ultimately made his move pay off by covering the second half in a 31-17 victory. “That field goal allowed me to get a lot of money back on the second half. But again, normally you don’t do that. It’s two separate entities. If you lose the game and lose the second half, that’s how it goes.”

Back on shore at the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas, oddsmaker Aaron Kessler echoes Kessler’s sentiment.

“We do discuss liability, but we don’t do it much,” Kessler said. “Generally, we let halftime be its own animal. If bettors can lock in a middle, let them lock in a middle. And if they want to middle themselves, that’s OK too.”

Sticking with football, Kessler delved into the process at his shop.

“We usually discuss things around the two-minute warning. Where the game’s at, where it’s going, which side people are gonna bet,” he said. “We know the wiseguys will have their charts and bet what they’ll bet, no matter what. But there’s conversations, and we try to figure out what the right move is.”

Over at the Superbook at Westgate Las Vegas, executive vice president of race and sports Jay Kornegay works a bit of mix and match on halftime lines and totals.

“It varies per game,” he said. “Sometimes we need to shade it according to what we need. If everybody else has 6, we might go 5.5 or 5. Or we might just base our opinion on what we saw in the first half and what we expect in the second half.”

And different sports lend themselves to a different approach.

“The NBA is pretty standard. It’s different than football, because you don’t get such sizable wagers. We get pretty sizable wagers for football at halftime,” Kornegay said, adding that at this time of year – when bowl games and playoff games are often going off just one game at a time – it’s a little easier for the books. “With games isolated, it’s easier to review, and we can adjust accordingly before posting a halftime number.

“The NBA schedule might have four games at 4:05 p.m., then you get four halftimes around the same time, and the 5 p.m. or 5:30 games, plus college basketball games. It can really complicate things. You don’t get to discuss it, you just have to get numbers up.”

And although hoops doesn’t bring with it the big individual halftime wagers, there is plenty of action.

“There are a lot of small wagers, a lot of interest in that,” Kornegay said. “With as many basketball games as we have on the schedule, it certainly makes up a big chunk of our daily business.”

Offshore sportsbook Bookmaker.eu said all the usual factors come into play: injuries, flow of the game, the original spread/total, etc. But there’s another big key, as well.

“Just as we do when setting opening lines, we are conscious of where the action will come from,” said John Lester, senior lines manager for Bookmaker. “If the Mavericks are down 10 points to the Sixers at the break, we aren’t going to shy away from a double-digit halftime spread, because we know we’ll have a ton of bets on Dallas to come back and win. Of course, this factor varies from sport to sport.”

For John Avello, director of race and sports at The Wynn, liability tends to come more into play.

“For halftimes, sometimes the line is really not what it should be,” Avello said. “The reason for that is that, as a bookmaker, I have to try to adjust my halftime line based on what I have for the entire game. So halftime is sometimes a really good bet for players.”


So what about on the other side of the counter? How do bettors strategize as they try to counter the halftime lines put out by the oddsmakers? First and foremost, as simple as it sounds, have your eyes focused on the game.

“I like to get the feel of a game that only my eyes can give me,” Covers Expert Nick Parsons said, speaking to football. “Halftime scores can be very deceiving. Team A may be winning by a large margin but have been totally outplayed by Team B. Turnovers, special teams can lead to easy scores and may not be indicative of the flow of the game. If a team is totally dominating but losing, I may take that team, knowing that things should be different in the second half.

“I also look for momentum. If a team has been down most of the first half and scores just before halftime, I will look to take them in the second half if they are getting the kickoff to start the second half. This is especially true in the college game, where emotion plays an important part in the game.”

Trends beyond that game can also play a role. How the players perform on the field from week to week can provide some insight as to how they might adjust at halftime of any given game. And the same goes for the coaches on the sideline.

“Florida State was a perfect example during the season. They were a great go-against in the first half and killed everyone in the second half of games,” Parsons said of the Seminoles, who went unbeaten in the regular season before losing in the Rose Bowl. “I also look at coaching styles. Some coaches will play conservatively with a big lead, while others will continue to pile it on. Knowing the tendencies of coaches plays an important role when I look at making a halftime wager.”

Fellow Covers Expert Sean Murphy prefers to stick with his original opinion of the game at halftime, although he recognizes as a bettor that some adjustments may be necessary in making a halftime wager. Still, he has faith in any particularly game’s original spread and total.

“I believe there is value in relating the halftime spreads/totals back to the original numbers,” Murphy said. “More often than not, games will end up finishing close to where the oddsmakers had them pegged. I've had success in basketball in particular by playing second-half overs after a low-scoring first half and Unders off a high-scoring first half. That logic seems pretty straightforward and simple, but it is lost on a lot of bettors.”

Murphy also tossed out an interesting strategy for football: betting just the third quarter.

“I'll look at quarter betting coming out of the half. There are times when the books will send out a 7.5 as the third-quarter total following a defensive first half, and the over will hit at a tremendous clip,” Murphy said.

Then there are some bettors who just aren’t attracted to halftime wagering, not believing there’s an advantage.

“I do not do any halftime betting,” Covers Expert Marc Lawrence said. “Handicapping involves massive hours of detailed research.  Having to give up solid positions based on halftime results is more of a reactive knee-jerk which plays right into the hands of the linesmaker, who seldom, if ever, gives away much of an edge.”


The oddsmakers in this business certainly want to keep money on their side of the counter. But they can offer some sound advice on betting halftime lines, too.

“The right way to bet a halftime line is bet what it should be, and get the extra value,” said Kessler, who practices some of what he preaches. “I like to bet big favorites in college basketball who aren’t shooting well, and hope they’ll turn it around. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, just like anything else.”

Kaminsky provided another primer of practical advice, relating to football.

“Say a total is 54, and the first half comes in at 31. You only need 23 to win (an Over) bet,” he said. “Say the second-half total is 28. The bettors will go for an Under bet and look at it as a middle. But you should only do that if you like the Under. Maybe you’ll hit both bets, but that’s still the wrong thing to do. You’re not gonna win as much money if you hedge a lot in those spots.

“Keep your original bet, unless you have an opinion. Then, if you win both, you won two separate bets.”

All that said, Kessler offered a final thought on halftime lines: that they might be declining in popularity in fairly short order.

“I think halftime lines become not obsolete, but less important as in-game betting goes up. Absolutely,” he said. “It’s the next big wave.”

And one that will surely have a splash of strategies to sort out, on both sides of the counter.

Colin Kelly is a Las Vegas-based contributor for Covers. Follow him on Twitter: @ColinPKelly29.
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