Gambling on the NFL is big business, especially after a 2018 Supreme Court decision striking down a federal ban on sports betting. Recent estimates suggest that as many as 46.6 million people will place a bet on the NFL this year, representing nearly one out of every five Americans of legal gambling age. As a result, there's been an explosion in sports betting content, most of which promises to make you a more profitable bettor. Given that backdrop, it can be hard to know who to trust.
Fortunately, you can trust me when I promise that I'm not going to make you a more profitable sports bettor. And neither will any of those other columns. It's essentially impossible for any written column to do so for a number of reasons I'll detail shortly. (I'm not saying it's impossible to be profitable betting on the NFL, just that it's impossible to get there thanks to a weekly picks column.)
This column's animating philosophy is not to make betting more profitable but to make betting more entertaining. And maybe along the way, we can make it a bit less unprofitable in the process, discussing how to find bets where the house's edge is smaller, how to manage your bankroll, and how to dramatically increase your return on investment in any family or office pick pools (because Dave in HR and Sarah in accounting are much softer marks than Caesar's and MGM).
If that sounds interesting to you, feel free to join me as we discuss the weekly Odds and Ends.
Some Thoughts on Betting Systems
If you lurk around the seedier corners of the gambling world, you'll undoubtedly come across people shilling a "fool-proof system" for beating the house. The most famous such system is probably the Martingale.
The Martingale is simple: find a game with a roughly 50/50 chance of success, place a bet, and then double that bet every time you lose. For instance, bet a dollar that a coin flip will come up heads. If it comes up heads, bank that dollar and start over. If it comes up tails, increase your bet to $2 and repeat. If it comes up tails again, bet $4 and repeat.
The net result of a Martingale system is that 50% of the time, you'll get heads on your first flip and win a dollar. And 25% of the time, you'll get tails on your first flip (-$1) and heads on your second flip (+$2) and win a dollar. And 12.5% of the time, you'll get tails (-$1), then tails again (-$2), and then heads on your third flip (+$4) and win a dollar. Given that as the number of flips trends towards infinity, that probability of *eventually* flipping heads becomes 100%, the Martingale is theoretically a "fool-proof" system to win a dollar from a coin-flip game.
In theory. If you have infinite time to make infinite flips and infinite money to fund them. In practice, occasionally, you'll get 19 tails in a row. It's extraordinarily rare, sure, but it happens. And then, on the next coin flip, you'll be on the hook to bet more than a half-million dollars (after having already lost more than a half-million dollars). And the upside, if you succeed, is you get to walk away from the whole affair with a single dollar in profit. (The downside if you fail, of course, is you've now lost a million dollars and are on the hook for betting a million more.)
In practice, the Martingale will make you a dollar the vast majority of the time and completely bankrupt you a tiny percentage of the time. And from a risk/reward standpoint, "risk complete and total financial ruin for the potential payoff of a single dollar" is generally not the wisest strategy.
(You could cap your maximum bet to guard against financial ruin, but the lower the cap, the more likely you are to hit it before you flip a head. Your downside risk is lower, but your chances of losing money are higher. Still: this is a very wise decision if you decide to try the Martingale, which you absolutely should not.)
That's just it. If there were a fool-proof way to "get" Vegas, Vegas would have gotten got by now, and yet when last I checked, they were still building more casinos. (And remember one of the most important lessons: if Vegas feels you have an advantage over it, they're welcome to just not accept your bet. There's no law requiring them to give you as much action as you want.)
Most betting systems are like this. They ignore real-world constraints, or they fail to account for the disproportionate downside risks compared to the relatively meager upside. (In one of the rare exceptions, Footballguy Maurile Tremblay has a "fool-proof" 80-point system for betting on roulette that's a positive expected value compared to other betting systems. But that's only because the 80th point is "after all of that, pick up your chips and walk away from the table without betting.")
In fact, the only way to turn a profit from a betting system is to convince some poor suckers to pay you to teach you their betting system. (If the system actually worked, you can be sure its proponents wouldn't be advertising this fact.)
You're almost certainly not going to make money from betting, at least not in the long run. (You'll have enough hot streaks to give you the illusion in the short run, which is why Vegas keeps building casinos.) But as I keep saying, there are reasons to gamble beyond "making money". If you treat it as entertainment, treat your losses as the cost of that entertainment, and never wager more than you can afford, it's a good way to increase your enjoyment of something you already like. A good betting system can highlight that aspect of gambling to further increase your enjoyment.
Good betting systems focus not on the odds of making a profit but on the odds of enjoying the journey. You can buy futures for your team to win the Super Bowl to make good seasons more exciting. You can bet extreme long-shots or 6-leg parlays and daydream about what you'd do if they actually hit. (From a pure "expected value" standpoint, parlays are among the worst bets you can make, but they'll get you a hell of a lot better return than buying lottery tickets and are a lot more exciting than watching a drum full of balls spin around.)
I'm personally partial to something I call the "fan hedge"; when my favorite team is in a big game (and especially when they're heavily favored), I'll bet the moneyline for their opponent. If my team wins, I'm so happy that the financial loss doesn't sting. If my team loses, at least I have a wad of cash to show for it.
(You can even apply the "fan hedge" to your fantasy football leagues. If you're in the championship game heading into Monday Night Football with a lead and your opponent only has one player left to play, you can bet the "over" on that player's yardage prop. If they have a huge game, you lose your fantasy league, but at least you make a little bit of money off of it.)
Certainly, you don't need me to tell you what is fun for you. Just remember, at the end of the day, if "making money" is your target, you're probably going to wind up disappointed. Make "increasing excitement" and "having fun" your target instead, and you'll win even if-- when-- you lose.
Lines I'm Seeing
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