My friend Bob is a sports nut, and most
of all he's a football nut.
He also likes to have a few dollars riding on the games.
During the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, he's in his glory, checking
out the point spread on this game and the over/under on that.
"I've never understood," he said. "Why
is it that you don't write more about sports betting? You're an old
sports guy yourself."
That I am. I started my newspaper career as a sports
writer, and spent many a year as an editor in various sports departments.
But I like to keep my focus on the games we see in casinos, and in the
United States, full-scale sports betting is legal only in Nevada.
"Still, you might make an exception at playoff
time. Why don't you explain just how good you have to be to make money
betting on football. I saw a sports writer who had been right on 52
percent of his picks for the season claim that if he'd bet his picks
in Vegas, he'd be making money.
"He wouldn't, would he?"
No, I agreed. Fifty-two percent would not be good enough.
The reason, as Bob knew full well, is the house surcharge,
or "vigorish," on what otherwise would be even-money wagers.
If you're looking to win $10, you don't wager $10, you wager $11. If
you win, you get back your $11 wager, plus $10 in winnings. If you lose,
the house keeps the entire $11.
That gives the house a 4.55-percent edge. The calculation
goes like this: If I bet $11 on Team A, and you bet $11 on Team B, the
house takes in $22 in wagers. The house then pays the winner $21 ---
the $11 wager plus $10 in winnings. The house then keeps the remaining
buck. Divide that dollar profit for the house by the $22 in total wagers,
then multiply by 100 to convert to percent, and you get a house edge
of 4.55 percent.
Because of that house edge, if you won as may wagers
as you lost, you wouldn't break even. You'd lose money. Let's say you
made 100 of those $11 wagers, risking $1,100. If you won 50, you'd get
back $1,050. Winning exactly as many wagers as you lose leaves you with
a $50 loss per $1,100 risked.
Win 52 bets and lose 48 --- the 52 percent the sports
writer bragged about --- and you get back $1,092. You're still $8 shy
of breaking even.
The breakeven point comes when you win 52.273 percent
of your wagers. You have to do better than that to make money --- and
that's not easy.
"It's especially not easy when you try to pick
every game," Bob said. "You have to be disciplined, bet only
on the games that look like the best bets, and stay away from the rest."
That's not easy at playoff time, is it?
"You said it," Bob agreed, grinning. "The
big game is the big game."
** ** **
I started my working life as a sports writer, and spent
many a year as an editor in sports departments of various newspapers.
Nonetheless, I rarely bet on sports myself. In fact, my best sports
betting stories aren't of big wins. They're tales of the woulda, coulda,
One came five years ago, when the St. Louis Rams were
favored over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXV in New Orleans.
My dad, brother and I went to a super Bowl party at the Tropicana in
Las Vegas. The Rams were a 14-point favorite --- a bet on the Rams would
win only if they won by 15 or more. A bet on the Patriots would win
even if New England lost by 13 or less.
I thought St. Louis would win handily, but I was tempted
by the money line. If I bet $100 on New England to win without regard
for the point spread, I would win $340. That was a big number, it was
tempting --- and I couldn't pull the trigger.
Naturally, New England went on to win. My wallet was
no heavier, but the party was a great time.
That seems to be how it goes for me and sports books.
One late winter, I was looking at the baseball futures book at the Stardust.
The Atlanta Braves were a last-place team the year before, and they
were listed at 100-1 to win the National League pennant. I liked their
young pitching, though, and figured even a $10 bet had a longshot chance
to bring me $1,000 if those pitchers were as good as I thought they
I hemmed and hawed ... and walked away. Why waste the
You know the end of this story. The year was 1991, and
the Braves won the NL before losing to Minnesota in an all worst-to-first
Who needed that thousand, anyway?
Listen to John Grochowski's "Beat the Odds"
tips Saturdays at 6:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 7:41 p.m. and Sundays at
8:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 10:42 p.m. on WBBM-AM, News Radio 780 in Chicago,
streaming online at www.wbbm780.com, and to his casino talk show from
7 to 8 p.m. Saturday on WCKG-FM (105.9), streaming at http://1059freefm.com.