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05. How should one go about handicapping a game?

The Philosopher:
Later we'll talk betting internet sports advantageously (shop lines, look for the lowest vig, etc.), but for this question, let's talk just about actually trying to figure out who's going to win a game, by how much, etc.

I think there are two main general approaches to sports handicapping, though they overlap somewhat, and most bettors probably use a combination of the two.

One is more substantive, and one is more a technical analysis of "trends."

The first type internet online gambling of method is where you research as much as possible about these teams specifically and this game specifically, weigh all the relevant substantive factors as best you can, and arrive at your best educated guess as to the likely outcome. There is a lot of subjectivity here, a lot of reliance on your "gut" to tell you what to consider and how heavily to weigh it.

If you are football betting and you bet on Baltimore because their defensive line is bigger, stronger, and faster than Pittsburgh's offensive line, because Pittsburgh has poor coaching, because Pittsburgh's best linebacker is out with an injury, because Baltimore has to win this game to make the playoffs and will likely play with a greater urgency, etc., then you're using this method.

The key to this method is research, research, research. The more informed your opinion or intuition is, the better.

The second method involves looking for specific trends that appear to hit at a greater than chance rate, and then betting the games that fit these trends.

For example (these are all made up by the way), "In games where a rookie pitcher is making his first career start, his team wins 45% of the time," "When Notre Dame plays its third consecutive home game as an underdog, it beats the sport spread betting 70% of the time," "Teams that have gained more yardage than their opponent for at least three games in a row beat the spread in their next game 59% of the time," etc.

Most touts seem to rely more on this second method. ("Bowling Green has beaten the spread the last seven times they were coming off a double-digit road loss," etc.) I think this method appeals to a lot of people because there is a certain precision or objectivity to it, compared to subjectively analyzing the game itself and all its complex substantive factors. I mean, Bowling Green either is or is not coming off a double-digit road loss; there's no ambiguity about it.

But for what it's worth-and many, many sports gambling bettors will disagree with me here, including a few who are actually successful-I'm mostly very skeptical of the "trend" method of handicapping. I'm open-minded, but I believe that the overwhelming majority of such trends have little or no predictive value whatsoever.

One reason I say this is because there are an infinite number of possible trends like this, so of course you can always go back after the fact and find as many as you want that have hit at a surprisingly high percentage. But you want to identify the ones that will continue to hit at that above chance percentage, and I think that is a very elusive task.

So, yes, I don't doubt it if someone tells me that in the last twenty years in the NFL, the team with the starting quarterback with fewer letters in his name has beaten the sport spread betting 60% of the time. But I refuse to make the inference from that to the conclusion that in the next game, I have a 60% chance of winning if pro football betting on the team with the starting quarterback with fewer letters in his name.

For all intents and purposes, I ignore trends and concentrate on trying to figure out who is the better team and by how much. But I think that puts me in the minority.

I wholeheartedly agree with Philo's "trend"-betting analysis. To me, it is the difference between "causation" (information with predictive value) and "correlation" (what most trends really are, which may be coincidence based) that makes trends questionable. Trends also extend into past years when the team's make-up, coaching, personnel, competence, etc. may have been dramatically different. Trends often go over the boundary of what I call "temporal significance," in that they are too old and of little or no relevance to the game in question.

On the other hand, if you can find a "causal root" to the trend, then I call it an "angle," and angles are a very productive handicapping tool.

One handicapping angle I use in my college basketball handicapping that is a tad obscure is a 2-3 year old recruiting analysis. Instead of just concentrating on how many starters are back and how good the incoming freshmen are, I look to see where the upper class talent was ranked, by recruiting analysts I respect, and what bench jockeys may be more able to step up (have talent) on some teams than others. It helps with my power ratings and identification of teams that are likely to be underrated and overrated at the beginning and end of the season. It's like looking at free agent acquisition in the pros, but few have the recruiting info I do. (It has been a hobby of mine that predates betting.)

I tend to value "power ratings" as a significant and somewhat objective handicapping tool. How one arrives at their own ratings is subjective, but once you develop a method or formula(s), then comparing two teams or players etc. to predict score or differential (spread) can be a good start to an objective approach.

Many publications post ratings and some handicappers will copy them, using their own home-grown tweaks. For instance, I will adjust the home court/field advantage in college sports up, for some teams, compared to most ratings I've seen. I feel it a bigger disparity than most magazines or Sagarin use.

Many handicappers use some form of power rating exclusively. I look at them as a starting point and as a way to throw some objectivity into handicapping forum. Positional stats match-ups, records, scoring averages, etc. are also important "quantitative" elements to consider.

Subjectively, factors like motivation, coaching acumen, "hot" and "cold" teams/players, revenge factor, contrasting playing styles, etc. also can be considered.

In most cases the more work you put into your handicapping pick, the better quality it will be. I do find that I can "over analyze" some factors and get caught up in one angle too much and forget about the big picture. But I make no claims of being a great handicapper at most sports. I'm always trying to learn from the success of others.

While one can burn the midnight oil studying the trends and intricacies of a mid-season LSU-Vanderbilt battle, you can still lose your wager on a fluke play, a bad bounce, or a terrible call. I call this the "What could go wrong?" factor and it does play a part in my sports handicapping system.

For instance, say I really like San Francisco at home versus New Orleans. The 49ers have won four straight while the Saints have been blown out three in a row. Add to this that New Orleans humiliated the 49ers earlier in the year when San Francisco's quarterback had the flu and now the quarterback is healthy--in fact, he's thrown 126 passes without an interception and was just named to the Pro Bowl!--and you can see why the 49ers are favorites. But why only 3 point favorites? Why is the line so low? The 49ers should kill them! When a line looks too good to be true, I become suspicious. Why? All factors point to a San Francisco blowout, yet that line won't budge off 3. Maybe there's something out there that I don't know about. It is this "What could go wrong?" factor that has saved me from many betting sport wagering losses.

On the other hand, if I still feel that San Francisco will win by three touchdowns, nothing will deter me, with the possible exception being an Act of God or a visit from my mother-in-law, the God-fearing, John Kyl-loving, I-will-change-you-and-get-the-hell-off-that-Internet-now, fun-loving-woman whose company I so enjoy.

I should say that I also discount trends in my handicapping. The fact that the New York Rangers have not lost at Ottawa in seven years after they win at Toronto has absolutely no bearing on my selections. This "trend betting" is one of the great ruses of our time. Who cares that Pittsburgh has not covered their next game after two consecutive road losses six years in a row? It's a fluke. The players are different, as are the coaches, stadiums, and refs.

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