Most new sportsbettors start on exactly the wrong foot - with ESPN and statistics. There is a reason ex-jocks and sports broadcasters make terrible gamblers, even though they might know more about the players, coaches and "intricacies of the game". Unfortunately, this is also why almost all sports gamblers are destined to eventually lose their shirts. All the hoopla, press coverage, speculation, and prognostication surrounding sports are pretty much irrelevant to beating the handicapping game.
For a beginning handicapper, most statistics are about as helpful as the display of past spins at your favorite roulette table. Fun to look at, but any pattern you discern is nothing more than an illusion, a temporary blip in "long-term probability". Short-term trends are a favorite of new handicappers that should be completely avoided. They sound great in sports service advertisements and as talking points on ESPN, but they are mostly useless until you have an idea of how it affects the underlying spread of the game. Otherwise they are little more than messy traps for novice handicappers. Likewise, the garden-variety statistics found in newspapers and on internet sports sites are mostly worthless, having long been factored into the lines.
New sports gamblers aiming for success should reach for the low-hanging fruit first. Concentrating on betting into weak lines will allow you to get your feet wet and is really the easiest way to get started. Consider the lines at "sharp" books as the most accurate line, and look for games that are scalpable - that means a game that if you bet one side at one book and one side at another book you would at least break even. Play only the weak end of the scalp - the line at the weak book. For instance, if you see Pittsburgh +180 at Bodog, and their opponent at -178 at WSEX, play the +180. If WSEX is offering you -178 on the opposite team, that means they are more than happy to take +180 on Pittsburgh - and WSEX is likely smarter than you at making lines, especially if you are just getting started. Use the big boys' opinions to make you money while you learn the ropes.
Understanding public betting is essential, and you can use it to hammer away at some of the "public" books. Many sportsbooks cater to a more recreational clientele, and that means you will have a better chance of finding "off" lines on high-profile events that have attracted a lot of public wagering attention. A telltale sign of a book that is easy pickings is to find operations that tend to impose unreasonable limits on players or even outright eject players for winning too much. This is the sign of a book slow to move their lines or otherwise offers prices that are favorable to players with their eyes open.
While opinions of what books are "sharp" can vary widely, consider any of the top-tier books to be among them: WSEX, The Greek, CRIS (Bookmaker), and Pinnacle. They haven't built successful businesses by giving money away, so their linesmakers tend to be more experienced and their lines sharper. They also have high limits and are not known for "booting" winning players, so they tend to attract a lot of sharper action, tightening their lines through market economics.
Of course, every beginning handicapper likes to make "picks" on his favorite sport, usually one of the "Big Three" for U.S.-based bettors: football, basketball, or baseball (hockey no longer deserves inclusion on the list). The big-market sports naturally attract the most betting action due to their popularity. The downside for gamblers is that these games often tend to have the most spot-on lines, at least as far as the big sportsbooks. For that very reason, these are among the worst sports you can choose to focus your handicapping on.
Any handicapping you do should focus only on the potentially weakest lines available. Mostly this means proposition bets and small-market sports. Again, look to the sharper sportsbooks to give you a clue to what they consider their weak spots, by looking for markets with consistently low limits. Pinnacle will take $100,000 on NFL sides, but only $1000 or less on some offerings.
You can think of this as the sportsbook as the bettor: Pinnacle is willing to risk $100,000 on a bet on either side of an NFL game, so you can be sure that they are pretty confident that they have an edge there. Conversely, they may be only willing to risk $1000 on an obscure boxing match, knowing that they very well may be taking the worst of it on some of their lines. If the book is not willing to take a big bet, it is probably less confident in its line and can potentially be the source of favorable wagers.
The spreads on the market are also a good indicator of confidence in lines. Many books use 30- or even 40-cent lines on propositions. This leaves the linesmaker more room for error in setting the price. When the bookmaker is trying to avoid getting beaten by sharp players, spreading the line out makes it more likely that both sides of the wager are bad bets for the players.
Smaller markets frequently offer more favorable lines since the low limits discourage the real heavy hitters from combing over those lines, and negates the effect a big bettor or group of bettors can have on the line. A big bettor dropping his max bet on a prop might still only be $500, easily balanced by ten $50 "squares" on the other side. This causes less drastic line moves, as opposed to major sports where a big syndicate can get hundreds of thousands of dollars down in a short time, making the public opinion mostly irrelevant and correcting the line rather quickly.
Another advantage of smaller markets is the variety of lines. Not only do prices vary quite widely, the handicaps themselves are often quite different. You may see LeBron James over 22 points at one sportsbook while it is over 28.5 points plus assists at another, or the Steelers over 120 rushing yards at -120 at one book and over 130 +120 at another Which line is better? The linemakers at many books couldn't tell you, and the small market (and profit potential) on props leaves them less willing to take the time to find out. Handicapping or database analysis can leave the handicapper some room to find edges on these kinds of bets. Some sportsbooks will have unique match-ups or propositions that can't be found at other books. Again, the narrow market means these lines are more likely to be in error, and without the benefit of "cloning" lines from other shops, the linesmaker's opening number is more likely to be in error.
If you've been finding your gambling piggy-bank depleted, or are trying to turn your recreational betting into something a little more profitable, consider focusing on finding weak lines and concentrating on smaller market sports. There's nothing wrong with throwing down a fun wager on the hometown team on a football Sunday now and then, but making money often requires going somewhere that everyone else isn't.
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