Handicapping Football: Beating The Book
By Chris Liss Originally published in 2001
This article is part of our fantasy football help series.
A friend of mine knows this bookie who takes bets on the State Lottery's Pick 3. He offers 750 to 1 odds, and if you have the number that comes up when the ping-pong balls drop, you win.
Of course, the odds of winning a pick three are 1000 to 1 (you can pick any number from 000 to 999).
So the bookie makes out like a bandit. Over time, for every $750 he pays out, he takes in $1000. Before you get outraged by this, we should tell you that the State itself pays out just $500. And that's before taxes.
You'd be a fool to bet with the bookie on the Pick 3, though only half the fool as those who play against the State. Whenever you bet against the house, whether it be sports betting or craps, there's some kind of vig or percentage they take out [As opposed to a "rake" in poker rooms.].
With sports betting, (on even propositions) it's usually ten percent added on losses, i.e., you have to risk $55 to win $50. Football games with point spreads are even propositions. The points make the favorite and the underdog equally likely to cover the spread, at least in theory.
You may disagree with that and prefer one side over the other. If you feel strongly about it, you may even be inclined to bet. But you have to remember that over time, it's hard to win consistently enough to overcome that extra ten percent that you kick in on all losing bets.
In fact, in order to beat the book, you have to win roughly 52.5 percent of the time. To understand this, assume you made 100 $1 dollar bets. If you won 53 of them (or 53 percent of the time), then you would win 53 dollars. You would also lose 47 dollars, plus an extra $4.70 (the vig), for a total of $51.70. So you win 53, lose 51.70, and come out ahead $1.30.
For the last two seasons, my brother Damon and I picked football games against the spread for RotoWire and over that time, we amassed a record of 278-202-14, for a .580 winning percentage. At 58%, we'd win $58 and lose $42 plus the $4.20 vig, for every hundred bets. That works out to a profit of $11.80.
A 12 percent average return on investment every football season is nice, and given the way the stock market has gone of late, the Beating the Book picks were probably a safer investment than what most of you owned. But can we keep it up?
The short answer is I don't know. We have done it for two years, and though that could be luck, the odds of randomly getting 278 or more games right out of a possible 480 when every game is 50/50, is roughly 1 in 3,333. Assuming for a second then that it's not luck, how did we do it?
There are several rules/principles to which we adhere while picking games, and in my mind, they largely account for our record, (assuming again that we're not just hitting the mini-lottery). I enumerate them below.
(1) Never bet more money than you can comfortably lose.
If you're risking more than you can lose in good conscience, then you will worry over picking the games. There's no way you can go with a big underdog, because they could get blown out. How can you risk all that money on a bad team? There's no way you can go with a big favorite because there could be garbage touchdowns.
After a while, you're not picking based on what you've observed, but trying to pick safely. But there are no safe picks.
Every game is 50/50! Hope and fear will take over and kick you around. You will be cut off from your observation-based intuition and instead turn to superstition and, if it gets really bad, religion. When that happens, you may as well have your paychecks forwarded directly to the Book.
Have some discipline here and play with affordable amounts.
(2) Leave your superstitions at the door.
If you think that wearing a certain pair of pants while watching your game will help, or you think that talking about your bet will jinx you, please stop. Superstition is a primitive form of thinking based on associating two events that have no causal relationship.
It arises in early childhood when you don't have the logical and linguistic tools to understand why mommy isn't with you or how long it will be before she comes back. Your superstitious beliefs help you stave off the fear of abandonment and loss. If you jump around in your crib the way you did just before mommy came back last time, maybe she'll come back again this time. It's just something to occupy you and distract you from your fear.
While few of us have outgrown the habit entirely, we should understand that it no longer serves any useful purpose. If superstitious beliefs arise in your mind, let them. Have a good laugh about them with your friends. But, do not take them seriously, and do not let them affect your betting strategy.
(3) No one knows what will happen.
So you think the Broncos will definitely blow out the Bengals. There's no way a team that bad can possibly hang with one that good. Unless Corey Dillon somehow breaks the single-game rushing record. And the 2009 Bucs surely had no chance to beat the Saints. How can they possibly stop them?
Essentially, the conclusions you draw based on what went on in previous weeks are neither right nor wrong. They are merely some verbal propositions that you carry around in your brain.
The game is played on the field by human beings with billions of brain cells, molecules, stray thoughts, motivations noble and petty, nagging, unreported injuries and pending criminal charges. Anyone's analysis that necessarily reduces the game to a few factors like the quarterback, the ability to pressure the quarterback, and the strength of the secondary is partial.
It is impossible to take into account all of the factors that influence the outcome of a game. So the first thing to do is admit your ignorance. If you do, you'll be open to all the possibilities, and you'll need to be if you expect to tap into your intuitive sense of how the teams will perform. (Why intuition is important is explained below).
(4) Never blindly take anyone's advice.
I don't care if we go 40-0 to start the season, absolutely do not bet our picks without examining our logic. (Well, if we go 40-0, maybe you can start doing that, but the odds against are more than a trillion to one.)
The reason we say this is that you have no access to our intuitions, our hunches. If the reason we pick the Browns +14 over the Titans is that we both feel strongly that the Browns will keep the game close, you won't be able to tell if that feeling is real or imagined. (It's hard enough to tell when it's your own feeling.)
You don't have access to another person's feelings, so you can't tell whether they have tapped into the ebb and flow of the NFL that week. Any handicapper can get out of sync. That's why it's essential when you read our column or anyone else's, you allow it to seep into your system and see how you feel about it.
How does the Browns' pick sit with you? If it doesn't resonate, don't bet it. There's nothing worse than disagreeing with what some "expert" has to say, betting on his pick instead of your own and discovering that your initial intuition, and not his, was right.
(5) Intention and attention.
After a while last season, when Damon and I had built up a pretty good record, we hit some weeks where we really felt challenged.
We'd look at the spreads on a Tuesday and honestly not know whom we liked. There seemed to be arguments for either side on almost every game, and after going over all the games and feeling clear on just one or two, we'd agree to start over again the next day. Overnight, all that we talked about would seep in, and we'd pull out the slate Wednesday. Although we felt a little clearer, things were still fairly murky. But we had to make our picks and get the article posted.
So we did, and usually they turned out fairly well. We'd go about 9-6 or 8-6-1 on some of the tough weeks, and after a while, I stopped worrying about them. All we could do was to intend seriously to pick a winner and give our full attention to the selection process. Which we did. There is some mysterious and unexplainable power in setting a clear intention and attending wholeheartedly to that task.
When you are picking games, don't do it frivolously. Sit down and really try to get a feel them. Go over the logic of it, the strengths and weaknesses, note how mentally committing to a team feels in your gut. Take it seriously.
(6) A picture is worth a thousand words.
We've talked a lot about hunches, intuition and feeling, and some of the more scientifically minded among you may be thinking that this is all bunk. Well, we disagree, but rather than leave it at that, I'm going to venture an explanation.
This is probably a mistake, as catering to critics is never a good idea, but we're scientifically minded as well, and this is how we explain it to ourselves.
The old adage, "a picture's worth a thousand words" comes to mind here. Watching a game on TV, your brain takes in impressions all the time. You see blockers, the movement of linebackers, the posture of the quarterback, the expression on his face after being scolded by the coach. Of course, your conscious mind only processes selectively.
You remember a long run, a great catch, a sack and an interception, but the small details escape you. You form beliefs based on what you remember, and those beliefs reside in your brain in the form of propositions like: "Manning has lost something." "Steve Slaton is one of the quickest running backs in the league." From those beliefs, you build conclusions about what will happen in the following Sunday's games. But those 10-or-so word propositions that you take from the games are far from thorough.
If a picture's worth a thousand words, and your TV is sending pictures at you at 30 frames per second, your mind is picking up 30,000 words worth per second. Over a sixty minute game, that's 108 million words.
Obviously, a picture isn't literally a thousand words, but hopefully you get the point.
Your eyes and mind take in much more than you consciously process, and as a result you have knowledge about players and coaches and game plans that you are not even aware of. Under hypnosis, you could probably recall details about games from two seasons ago that you have long since forgotten.
The archives are there.
When you strongly intend to pick a winner, you ask your mind to go to work for you. You are saying: "I want to use everything in my power to find out which team will win this game." The first thing that comes up are your conscious memories and thoughts, your reductive analysis. But if you are willing to admit that you don't know, that your analysis is only partial, something else may come up. A feeling, a hunch, an intuition, based on information you don't even remember acquiring.
The information itself, what you saw or heard remains hidden from your awareness, but a feeling in your gut or heart or a strong unexplained belief in your brain translates it for you. You know something, and you're not sure how you know it.
Of course, if hope infiltrates this, you can end up creating false hunches where none exist, so be careful here. Never force a hunch, and never set out to rely on one.
Just look at the game and the spread, and as you consider the matchups and the team's past performances, notice whether a hunch emerges. If so, take note, and incorporate it as one factor into your decision. If you start fancying yourself a prophet (don't laugh, after a nice run of success, it's easy to fall into it), you'll soon be humbled.
(7) There's no such thing as a good or a bad team.
It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one team is "good" and another "bad." Early last season, the Broncos and Jets were considered two of the best teams, and the Cardinals and Dolphins two of the worst. Of course, things change. But when? At one point did the Broncos and Jets suddenly stop being good?
The point isn't simply that good teams can become bad and vice-versa, but that all teams, all the time are constantly in a state of becoming. Players are aging, learning, meshing, losing their minds and laundering drug money. You can't just say the Browns are horrible and the Bears are average, so there's no way the Bears can lose to the Browns.
Football teams are like forces of nature, losing or gaining power over time. Just because a hurricane was strong last week over the ocean, doesn't necessarily mean it will be strong when it hits your area. This is an obvious point, but the human mind always wants to draw conclusions, it always wants certainty.
Most people don't want to consider the possibility that the Browns could play a close game with the Ravens next season, and they will always be behind the curve. They will always wait for the results to happen before changing their minds. But the seeds of a team weakening are always planted well before the results are apparent.
The seeds of weakness are always present even in the strongest teams, and vice-versa. If you don't buy into the myth of "good" and "bad," you can see the possibilities, the many directions in which any team in the NFL might go before they actually get there.
As Wayne Gretzky's father told him when he was a kid: "skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been." The same can be said for the ever-shifting power dynamics in the NFL.
(8) When in doubt, take the underdog.
When you have to pick every single game, there are inevitably some about which you simply have no idea. No matter how much intention, attention and analysis you bring to it, no hunch, no heart-felt or sensible conclusion comes to your spread-picking aid. In cases like this, where you're essentially offering a guess, take the underdog.
I've heard or read somewhere that underdogs historically have covered slightly more often than favorites, and it makes sense.
For the most part, people don't want to stake their money on a lesser team. It's much more enjoyable to get behind the "better" team, the one that's more likely to win.
Because the book wants to eliminate its risk, it will tailor its lines to have an equal amount of bets on both sides. It wants the wins and losses to cancel out and thereby derive a guaranteed, riskless profit from the vig. If more people are jumping on the favorite, the sports book will move the spread in favor of the underdog until the bets even out on both sides.
We suspect that spreads are, on average, ever so slightly underdog friendly to combat this tendency before the betting even starts.
(9) Don't be afraid to change your mind.
Just because you told everyone that you like the Colts and their explosive offense doesn't mean you shouldn't bet the Seahawks if at the last minute you feel strongly that they're the right bet. There's no prize in life for blind consistency, and there's no penalty for changing your mind.
Don't get superstitious about it, just make the bet that you're most comfortable making at the time, regardless of what you've said or decided in the past.
(10) Watch as many games as you can.
There is absolutely no substitute for watching games.
Knowing stats, tendencies, players and whatever else is not the same thing as observing the actual contest live or on television, at the very least. Observation is at least as important to picking games as analysis as the numbers rarely tell the entire story.
Watch as much football as you can, and your understanding of the teams will seep in the way a rookie quarterback learns the offense by carrying a clipboard. It's never enough just to study the plays.
In the end, these principles are only guidelines, which are much more easily advised than applied. There are so many distracting factors like hope, fear, laziness, superstition, forced hunches, the tendency to depend solely on reductive analysis, the desire to be consistent, and the desire to rely on some "expert" rather than think for oneself.
But if you can guard against these tendencies and give your full attention to choosing games, we believe you can enter a zone whereby it's no longer you picking the games, but the Lord betting through you. At least, that's what we're trying to do.
Good luck this season.