Six tips for becoming a sharper sports bettor

The proliferation of legal sports betting has introduced millions to a hobby that can be costly. Many new players discover that beating the house is not easy. But it’s not unrealistic at least to give yourself a better chance. Taking a look at the habits and tools used by sharp bettors — also known as “sharps,” “professionals” or “wiseguys” — gives us clues as to how professionals sustain a track record of success.

Here are six things you can do to give yourself a fighting chance against the house.


Know your bet’s break-even rate

The break-even rate is, quite simply, the rate you would need to win a given bet to break even over the long term. Your edge over the house appears when the odds are more forgiving than your bet’s break-even rate. The bigger the difference, the higher your edge.

This series will examine the impact of legalized gambling on sports, through news coverage, accountability journalism and advice for navigating this new landscape. Read more.

To start, let’s consider a simple coin flip. The win rate for betting on the outcome is 50 percent: Half the time we would expect the coin to land on heads, with the other half on tails. In sports betting terms, the fair moneyline equivalent for such a bet would be +100: Bet $100 to win $100. Wagering on a moneyline better than +100 — which would provide a break-even rate of less than 50 percent — would turn the coin flip bet into a winning proposition over time because the 50-50 odds are above the break-even rate. Odds worse than +100 would carry a break-even rate above 50 percent and would be expected to reduce your bankroll.

For example, if you were offered odds of -110 on a coin flip — bet $110 to win $100, as you might see during the Super Bowl — your edge would be worse than nonexistent. You would be expected to lose 5 cents for every dollar wagered. If the odds were +110 — wager $100 to win $110 — you would be expected to win 5 cents for every dollar bet. Sports betting isn’t as black-and-white as flipping coins, but if you are able to estimate a bet’s chances of winning, you can assess how wisely you’re spending your money.

Say you were evaluating a baseball game and decided Team A had a 70 percent chance of beating Team B. You would need a moneyline of -233 or better to make this a winning long-term bet. Similarly, any odds better than +233 on Team B — implying a 30 percent chance to win — would also be considered a decent wagering opportunity.

The formula for calculating a break-even rate varies depending on whether the moneyline is positive or negative:

  • If the moneyline is negative, take the absolute value of the moneyline and divide it by itself plus 100. For example, the break-even rate for a moneyline of -110 would be 110/(110+100) = 52.4 percent.
  • If the moneyline is positive, take 100 and divide it by the moneyline plus 100. The break-even rate for a moneyline of +110 would be 100/(110+100) = 47.6 percent.

We’ve done the work for you and listed some common money lines with their break-even rates. Remember: You want the expected winning percentage of your bet to be above the break-even rate.


Shop around for the best price

You wouldn’t buy a car without comparing prices, and you should take the same approach to sports betting. This is harder to do at brick-and-mortar sportsbooks — or in jurisdictions that limit your mobile betting options — but as long as you have multiple shops, you are giving away money if you don’t compare prices.

This process, also known as line shopping, is an underrated exercise that many sharp bettors consider a crucial part of their success.

“Line shopping is the single sharpest thing you can do to advance your sports betting game,” explained Jack Andrews, a professional bettor and co-founder of Unabated, a website that offers line comparison calculators and other tools geared toward educating the betting community. “When you line shop, you are looking for the lowest vig: -105 compared to -110, for example. And you will lose less when you are wrong if you pay less vig.”

The vig is the cost of the bet, which typically ranges from 4 to 5 percent for a straight bet, depending on the market. The vig, or hold, on a futures bet is much higher.

No matter the sport, games might have multiple prices and numbers offered at various oddsmakers. For example, here are prices offered from a June baseball game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres. If you felt the game would go under seven runs, then the +100 price at DraftKings would have been your best option. If you felt the game would go over, you could put money down on over 6.5 runs at +105 at Caesars or at +107 at Pinnacle.

In fact, you could have bet both sides of the market and locked in a small profit no matter the outcome. In such a scenario, if exactly seven runs had been scored, you would have pushed on one bet and won the other. Access to multiple sportsbooks, of course, is critical for this approach because each could offer a different price and number.

Here’s another example from a Rafael Nadal vs. Ricardas Berankis match at Wimbledon. One sportsbook had Berankis +8.5 games at +110, while another had the same play at -140. The latter bet has a break-even rate of more than 58 percent, which means it would have to win more than 58 percent of the time to be profitable over the long term, while the former has a much more forgiving break-even rate of 47.6 percent.


Know the value of a half-point, especially in NFL betting

Football scoring — three points for field goals, six points for touchdowns, seven for touchdowns with the extra point — causes final margins to clump around the key numbers of 3 and 7 first and foremost, followed by 6, 14 and 10.

Use this to your advantage. However, you need to know how much a half-point is worth when a point spread goes from, say, -3 to -2½, turning a potential push into a win for a three-point favorite. Ditto when it goes from +3 to +3½, turning a potential push into a win for a three-point underdog. The value of that half-point, confusingly, isn’t the same as the half-point difference between -7 and -6½, or +7 and +7½, which could turn pushes into wins in a seven-point game.

I will spare you the math, but if the consensus line is -3 at -110 — bet $110 to win $100 — and you can find -2½ at a price of -125 or better, you just gained an edge on the house. The math is the same if the line is +3 at -110 on the underdog and you can find +3½ at -125 or better. If the line is -7 at -110 on the favorite and you can find -6½ at -120 or better, that, too, is value. If the underdog is +7 at -110, then you need +7½ at -120 or better for an edge.

At the same time, beware of point spreads of -4 and -5. Scoring margins that cover these spreads simply don’t occur often enough to find value moving a half-point in either direction. Instead, if looking to back the favorite, consider moving all the way from -4 to -6½ if you can find a price of +120 or better, or from -5 to -6½ if the price is +110 or better.

Employing this strategy isn’t as hard as you might think. Stale lines are common in states where there are multiple books to choose from, and you also can monitor sharp, quick-reacting books such as Pinnacle or Circa for line movement, jumping on a bookmaker that isn’t as quick to update its lines. This is known as “chasing steam.”


Avoid parlays, especially single-game parlays

Parlays provide a huge windfall for the house. In May, Louisiana reported $12.4 million in income off parlays alone, which accounted for more than 48 percent of its total profit. According to UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research, the state’s oddsmakers earn, on average, 32.1 cents per dollar wagered on parlays, compared with just 5 cents per dollar on straight wagers. Think of parlays as high-interest credit cards: Simply avoiding them entirely will be an immediate boost to your bottom line.

The reason they’re so good for books — and bad for players — is twofold: They are difficult to win, and the odds offered in single-game parlays sometimes differ substantially from their straight wager counterparts. The latter is especially true if the wagers are correlated, meaning one could influence the other’s chances of occurring. For example, a parlay featuring a player hitting a home run plus the total number of runs going over is correlated, because home runs by nature increase the score. That parlay will pay less than if you parlayed the same player hitting a home run with the total going under, even if the over/under bets were the same at the same price.

If you want to play a parlay, wait for oddsmakers to offer risk-free promotions for the entire wager — not just “insurance,” in which you receive a refund if one of the legs loses. It’s also best to swing for the fences in these promos. After all, they are risk-free. If you don’t want to wait, make sure the odds offered in each leg are superior to the wager’s break-even rate, as described above. This will ensure you are getting a reasonable return for your risk.


Place your bets early in the week, not at the last minute

All markets start with an opening line, the first one available for wagering. These typically have lower limits than lines available closer to game time, an attempt to limit the house’s exposure. After all, the opening lines are only a first guess as to what the appropriate market should be. As more information is collected — player moves, starting lineups, injury reports, sharp action — the prices are moved and the limits are raised. By game time, conventional wisdom and betting action have given us a mature market — and often inferior prices relative to what was available earlier.

In football, try to focus your wagering on opening lines, including look-ahead lines released a week early. In 2021, there were 32 instances of an NFL favorite opening at -2½, a key number discussed above. That price improved 19 times and stayed the same 10 times, leaving us with just three instances in which the opening line got worse. An opening line of -6½ improved seven out of 12 times in 2021. It’s a fine strategy to blindly bet any opening or look-ahead line at those numbers, provided the price is -110 or better.


Focus on closing line value

Winning a bet is great, but it’s not the only — or even the best — measure of success. Think about playing poker; you might lose after going all-in with a pair of aces against a pair of 3s, but that doesn’t mean your bet was unwise.

In sports betting, the equivalent focus should be on closing line value: the price of your bet relative to where the line closes at a sharp book after removing the vig. There are plenty of no-vig calculators online; just make sure the book you are comparing your wager with is one known to take sharp action (such as Pinnacle or Circa). For example, if you bet the Kansas City Chiefs moneyline at -160 and it closes at -200 after removing the vig, you have closing line value — a better price than bettors were offered at the last possible instant. If the no-vig closing line was -140, then the market is telling you your price is not as good.

That doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t still win your bet, and finding closing line value is no guarantee you won’t lose. But it can show you where you stand compared with conventional betting wisdom. Over time, you should win a higher rate of bets that have closing line value than those that don’t — which is the point of smarter betting.

Illustration by Lily LK for The Washington Post.