A beginner’s guide to sports gambling

9 min

Sports gambling has erupted in popularity since the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban in 2018, with the American Gaming Association estimating it brought in $53.03 billion in 2021 — a 21.5 percent increase from 2019, the last year with a non-pandemic sports schedule. While many fans have jumped right in — or were familiar with sports gambling before it was legalized — others may be interested in taking it up as a hobby but might not know where to start.

This explainer is for you, the novice sports gambler. Here is a list of sports gambling basics to help you on your way.

Where can I legally gamble on sports in the United States?

Sports gambling is operational in 32 states and D.C. and has been legalized but is not yet operational in four other states (Maine, Ohio, Florida and Nebraska).

Is there any difference between online sports gambling and betting in person?

The difference between betting at a brick-and-mortar sportsbook and betting on your mobile device or computer is minimal, especially considering the same companies operate both. At a sportsbook, you will wait in line to make your bet — with a human teller or at an automated kiosk — and pay using cash, receiving a paper ticket documenting your wager. With online betting, you can wager anywhere it’s legal and fund your account using a credit card or an online money transfer.

One other difference: Live betting — wagering on a game after it has started — is much easier online.

What are some key terms to know?

Moneyline bet: The most basic wager, in which you pick the winner of a game. The final score does not come into play — only who wins and who loses. If the team you pick wins, you win your bet.

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.

Point-spread bet: A type of wager in which you’re betting on a team to win by a certain amount of points or lose within a certain amount of points. For instance, in Week 1 of the NFL season, the Washington Commanders are four-point favorites to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars. If you bet on the Commanders, they must win by at least five points for your bet to pay off. If they win by three points or fewer or fail to win at all, you lose. Alternately, anyone betting on the Jaguars would need them to win outright or lose by three points or fewer.

If the Commanders beat the Jaguars by exactly four points, everyone’s bets are refunded. This is called a push.

This is how the Commanders-Jaguars game appears at DraftKings sportsbook. Favorites are denoted by negative numbers. Underdogs are denoted by numbers with a plus sign in front. (We’ll explain the numbers after -4/+4 next).

Juice: The juice comes into play on moneyline bets, point-spread bets and bets on the over-under total, and it determines how much you will be paid if your bet wins. It is denoted in the above example by the -115 and -105 numbers listed after the point spreads.

In moneyline bets, the favorite is given a negative number, and the underdog is given a positive number. In the case of the Commanders-Jaguars game, Washington is a -180 favorite to win the game. This means you have to wager $180 to win $100 if you pick the Commanders to win (or $18 to win $10 or $1.80 to win $1). Likewise, the Jaguars are +155 underdogs. This means a $100 bet on Jacksonville to win will pay $155 (or $10 to win $15.50 or $1 to win $1.55).

Multiples of 100 and 10 are the easiest to understand, but your wager can be any dollar amount you want. The possible payout will be calculated for you no matter how much you bet.

In point-spread bets, the juice is assigned to each team to help the sportsbooks lock in profits. In essence, think of it as a tax on your wager. Generally, each side of a point-spread bet is assigned -110 odds, though as we see here, that’s not always the case.

One more key thing to remember: In sports betting, you get your payout based on the odds while also getting your original stake returned to you. So if you bet $105 on Washington to cover the four-point spread and it does, you will get back $205 (your original $105 stake plus the $100 your winning bet paid out at -105 odds).

Total: When you bet on a total, also known as an over/under bet, you’re betting that one or both teams will score more or fewer points than the number assigned by the sportsbooks. Usually, the total is listed after the point spread with an “o” or “u” displayed in front of a number:

The total for the Commanders-Jaguars game is 43.5 points. If you bet the over, you think the teams will combine to score at least 44 points. If you bet the under, you think the teams will combine to score 43 points or fewer.

There are numerous totals bets you can make. You can bet on the teams’ combined points in one half or one quarter. You can also bet on the point total for each team.

Parlay: A single bet involving two or more wagers, with the payoff getting higher depending on how many wagers (also known as legs) are involved. You can parlay moneylines, point spreads and totals together in just about any combination. All of the wagers in your parlay need to win for your bet to be successful.

For instance, let’s say you want to parlay the Commanders moneyline at -180 with the Chiefs moneyline at -155, which means you think Washington and Kansas City both will win. A winning $100 bet would pay out $155.56. Let’s say you want to parlay the Commanders (-180), the Chiefs (-155) and the Cowboys (a moneyline underdog at +110). Because you added another leg to your parlay, and an underdog to boot, a winning $100 bet would pay out $437.43.

As The Post’s Neil Greenberg has noted, parlays are generally not a good idea for gamblers, particularly novice ones.

Teaser: A teaser is, at its essence, a parlay: You’re combining two or more wagers into one bet, and all the legs must win for your bet to pay off. But in a teaser, you get to “buy” points on the point spread or total — generally six points for football games and four points for basketball games.

Let’s go back to NFL Week 1 for our example. The Bills are one-point underdogs to the Rams, and the Patriots are 2.5-point underdogs to the Dolphins. In a teaser, you would add six points to both point spreads and parlay the Bills as seven-point underdogs with the Patriots as 8.5-point underdogs.

Sportsbooks generally charge in the neighborhood of -120 juice on two-team teasers.

Like regular parlays, novice gamblers can get into trouble with NFL teasers, but there is a way to be smart about them by using optimal strategy.

Prop bet: A prop bet is, in most instances, a bet on one player’s performance. In football, it could mean a bet on how much yardage a player will gain (usually separated by position into rushing, receiving and passing) or a bet on whether a player will score a touchdown.

Futures bet: A futures bet is when you bet on a team to win a season title (league, conference or division) or to surpass or fall short of a season win total as established by bookmakers. You also can make futures bets on players to win awards handed out after the season or to reach certain statistical benchmarks. However, be advised that some states (such as Virginia) do not allow bets to be made on “subjective trophy awards” such as a league MVP or the Heisman Trophy in college football, in which the recipients are chosen by voters.

Where can I do research?

If you’re going to be a successful sports gambler, you need at least a rudimentary knowledge of sports statistics. Sites such as Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus are good references on the NFL (though you will have to subscribe to get their full offerings), while Bill Connelly’s statistical breakdowns at ESPN are good for college football. For college basketball, sites run by Ken Pomeroy, Erik Haslam and Bart Torvik offer a wide array of advanced statistics. FanGraphs is a good reference for baseball, and MoneyPuck and Natural Stat Trick get the job done for hockey.

Greenberg’s Fancy Stats column in The Post also is a good resource.

Any final advice for beginners?

Do not pay someone to make picks for you, because scammers abound in the sports gambling industry. Anyone who claims to have a winning system or an unbelievable gambling record almost certainly is exaggerating their prowess, at the least, and at the worst is straight-up lying. Think of it this way: If you had somehow come up with a way to beat the system, would you go around advertising it?

Considering the sizable number of online sportsbooks available in many states, it also pays to shop around to find the best odds for your bets.

Illustration by Lily LK for The Washington Post.