Gambling Gurus: A Gambler’s Glossary

It’s that time of year when children return to school, the leaves stiffen, and I start worrying about point spreads. For many the end of summer brings existential angst as another browning year is reduced to dust by the boots of time. But every September I turn to the one solace that reliably warms my heart on the coldest afternoons: betting on football games I wouldn’t otherwise care about. How else can you justify wasting a beautiful afternoon watching the woeful 49ers take on the Cardinals, winners of Superbowl MMMLCIX? The truth is, a little action keeps things interesting.

If you’d like to bet on football, but haven’t tried, there are a few things—and a bit of lingo—that you need to know. It’s not as easy as betting on the team that wins; only your friends at the bar will take that action. You have to bet the team will win by a certain number of points. Say the New England Patriots are favored by 7.5 over the Washington Redskins. In order to win money, the Patriots need to win by at least 8 points. Eight points is the “spread,” or the distance between a team’s victory and a payout for bettors. If they only win by a touchdown, then the smart money was on the Skins.

In betting jargon, the odds for any given game is known as “the line.” Each week during the NFL season, Vegas sets the line on Tuesday. It looks something like this: Carolina by 2 against the Giants, with a total of 42.5. Sometimes there won’t be a spread or total early in the week, when a key variable is unknown. For example, will star quarterback X still be in the can on Sunday? Bettors have to wait and see.

“The total” is the projection of the combined points that will be scored by both teams. Instead of picking one team to beat the spread, you can bet on either side of the total. Betting ‘over’ the total is an optimist’s bet. You think the teams are going to combine to score more than the numbers suggest. It’s a fun bet because you can enjoy every point by both teams and you’ve got a chance to win late into the game. I’ve seen plenty of lost ‘overs’ resuscitated during a fourth quarter frenzy.

By contrast, the ‘under’ is gut wrenching. It’s three hours of rooting for false starts, bobbled passes, and the yellow flag. All that, and you can lose your bet long before the game ends. If you’re betting for sport to add spice to a MNF game, the over is the way to go. But if you’re looking to take your betting game up a notch, consider that the early games on September 10th saw 7 ‘unders’ come in. If it’s not part of your repertoire, you’re not going to be a strong bettor.

The best word in gambling is reserved not for the bettor but the bookie. It’s ‘vig’ or vigorish.’ Derived from the Yiddish ‘vyigrysh’ for winnings, the vig refers to the house’s cut on a bet. These days, some people say ‘juice.’ That should be strongly discouraged since ‘vig’ is not a word we want to fall out of use.

Usually, the vig is 10%, so a $100 bet really means that you’re putting up $110. Hey, you interject; they already make their money when I lose. But they don’t; casinos and bookies don’t make their money from betting the right side of a game. If they did they’d get taken to the cleaners on every upset. They operate by arranging money on both sides of the bet, and pocketing the vig. That’s why the line, set on Tuesdays, moves throughout the week, as money flows on one side or the other. If too many people are betting one side, the line shifts to make the other side more attractive, balancing the bets by gameday.

The final question: to use a bookie or not. Most betting has moved online. It’s simpler, less scary, and ultimately better for the bettor. With a bookie, you have to make your picks in the last moments before a game starts. That pressure can turn a clinical decision into a last minute hunch, but the real reason you want to bet online is that you can take advantage of the lines’ movements over the week. For example, when the odds come out on Tuesday, the Dolphins are favored to beat the Jets in the Meadowlands by 2.5. However, you expect that most of the smart money is going on Miami, which will move the line over that all-important 3-point mark. By betting early online, you can nail down that 1/2 point that ends up being the difference between a celebratory steak frites with your significant other and a certain cold detachment from your wife.

There’s really only one reason to go with a bookie – it’s fun. Like a GTO on blocks out back or dating a stripper, having a bookie has a knock-around, I’ve forgotten more sex than you’ll ever have sort of caché. Smart people bet online. I have a bookie.

Do you have betting questions? Ask Stefan in the comment box.

If the point spread is 2 points and the team wins by 2, who wins?

— Thomas    Sep 13, 01:41 AM    #

That’s a ‘push’ and you get back your money (including the vig). That’s one of the reasons bookmakers like spreads with fractions.

— Stefan    Sep 13, 09:02 AM    #

What’s the best sort of bet for an uniformed sort like myself? And are any sports easier to make money off than others, betting wise?

— John    Sep 19, 09:38 PM    #

John – look out for an article addressing your questions in a couple of weeks.

— Stefan    Sep 21, 01:30 PM    #


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