ESPN staff9 Minute Read
This excerpt is from “Gambler: Secrets from a Life at Risk,” an autobiography by Billy Walters, who is widely considered the GOAT of American sports bettors.
I didn’t realize it then, but when I went broke the first time in my life — betting on the 1955 World Series at the age of nine with the Munfordville town grocer — I was taking the first step toward preparing myself to write this chapter. Welcome to my master class for sports betting.
From that moment until now, I have been through more trials and tribulations than anyone could ever imagine. It’s safe to say that, over the course of my sixty-plus years of betting, I have wagered billions of dollars (yes, billions).
I also have spent countless millions of dollars trying to stay ahead of the game. If we had not updated our computer models and I hadn’t reinvented how I think about sports at least fifty different times, I would have been out of business way back during the Reagan administration.
The truth is, until I decided to write this book, I would not have taken $20 million to share the details of my system. Friends ask me why I’d want to give away my secrets now. The simple answer is I’m not getting any younger and I want to give something back to sports fans.
Let me start out with the absolute basics: there generally are many ways to bet, but the main one is spread betting.
In a spread bet, the score matters. For example, if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are favored by 7.5 points against the New Orleans Saints. You can either take Tampa Bay at -7.5 (which means they have to win by 8 points or more for you to win the bet) or New Orleans at +7.5 (which means they have to either lose by 7 points or fewer, or win the game, for you to win the bet). In either case, you generally must pay an additional 10 percent to make the bet. So a $100 wager will cost you $110. This is called the “juice” or the “vig,” from the Russian/Yiddish word “vigorish.”
Because you have to pay that extra $10, it means you’ll need to win 52.38 percent of the time to break even.
Here’s another way of putting it: even if you pick winners half the time after laying $110 to win $100, you will only get back 95.4 percent of your money – because you have to pay the bookmaker. Consider you place two bets laying $110/$100 for a total investment of $220. With one loss and one win, you get back $210 on your winning bet (your bet plus the winning of $100) and you lose $110 on the losing bet. Bottom line: you win $210 on a $220 investment, which is 95.4 percent. This is worse than most slot machines, which on average return about 96 percent of the money played. The odds are even worse if you’re playing parlays and teasers.
In a moneyline bet, you’re simply wagering on who will win. Moneyline bets are common in baseball, tennis, soccer, and other events where the scores tend to be smaller numbers, but you can bet the moneyline for any event.
Favorites in a moneyline bet are denoted with a minus sign. Underdogs are a plus sign. Let’s say, for example, the Buccaneers are playing the Saints and Tampa is a -180 favorite and New Orleans is a +160 underdog. If you like Tampa to win, you must bet $180 to win $100. If you like New Orleans, you bet $100 to win $120. The final score doesn’t matter-you win if your team wins. The bookmaker’s fee is baked into the numbers.
My primary message is that the average Joe or Jane faces an almost insurmountable set of disadvantages that virtually guarantee a significant loss over the long term unless you can flip the odds in your favor. I did that for thirty-six consecutive years, and I’ve developed a set of core principles for sports wagering that I’ll share with you now:
There are three essential elements of a good sports betting system: handicapping, a betting strategy and a money management plan. Money Management
Properly managing your money is almost as important as handicapping and betting strategy.
The first order of business: sit down and decide what you want to risk. Start with the assumption that you’ll lose it all. The simple fact is you can’t play without a bankroll, so the top priority should be to do everything possible to protect the money you decide to risk.
With that thought in mind, I recommend that you set specific limits on how much you wager. Ideally, you should not risk any more than 1 to 3 percent of your bankroll on any single bet. This allows you to spread the risk and limit significant losses.
Being a good handicapper is, of course, essential to being a winning sports bettor. I have teams of handicappers that develop power ratings for every NFL team-and ratings on every single player, in addition to keeping statistics on all of the important factors that go into a game. We make outcome predictions for every NFL game, just like the Las Vegas bookmakers. And I bet my opinion against those bookmakers’ opinion. My track record speaks for itself.
Many sports bettors do not have the time or expertise for in-depth handicapping, which is understandable. So, use the resources that are publicly available, from ESPN to local newspapers. But here are a few key tips that every sports bettor should know.
The standard NFL home-field advantage, taking fanfare, folklore, and conventional wisdom into consideration, is generally thought to be worth 3 points. Well, not so fast. The actual average home-field advantage, taking into account every NFL game from 1974 to 2022, is closer to 2.5 points. In addition, the home-field advantage over the last four years of NFL football is actually less than 1 point (thanks largely to COVID).
If you had made the mistake of using 3 points for the average home-field advantage over the last three years, you certainly would have lost. This is a variable that needs constant updating to keep up with trends. I do a lot of reading and examining scoring trends over time to determine exactly what advantage home field affords.
Also, the average home-field advantage is different based on specific cities. Some teams enjoy extra special advantages due to geography (think the Denver Broncos and elevation) or weather (think teams built for the cold or hot weather such as the Green Bay Packers or Miami Dolphins). Overall attendance, the presence of rabid fans, the comforts of home, home field familiarity and travel issues for the visitors are other factors that may also affect-home field advantage.
Injuries: Injuries and illness can significantly affect a team’s performance. To me, this is a hugely important factor in gaining a handicapping advantage. It is absolutely critical to know who is playing in each game, who is not playing, and who is playing hurt.
We closely monitor NFL injury reports and look at media and other sources for key information about the extent of injuries.
We also consider many other factors that could affect an individual game situation. They include:
• Turf: Is the visitor playing on different turf than its home field?
• Divisional play: Visitors tend to play tougher in divisional matchups.
• Teams coming off Thursday night: The extra rest time often helps.
• Teams traveling and the distance traveled: Long trips have an effect.
• Consecutive weeks on the road: The second consecutive road game is more difficult than the first, and the third is more difficult than the second.
• Teams coming off byes: Again, a week’s rest may or may not help. It depends on the team.
• Teams changing time zones.
• Temperature differences: Warm weather team to cold.
• Rain, snow: Some teams do much better than others in adverse conditions.
After you’ve developed a handicapping strategy, it’s time to think about betting. But before you start betting, you must develop a betting strategy. The goal is simple: to get the best price. But getting the best price is not easy or simple. It requires some work. Here are some key elements of any successful betting strategy.
• Sports betting is like everything in life: to be good at it, you need to take it seriously.
• You may think betting is a 50/50 proposition. It is not. Because you must pay a fee to make a bet – usually $11 for every $10 bet – you need to win 52.38 percent of the time to break even.
• Set limits on how much you will wager. Do not waver from it.
• Don’t chase losses by betting on games you didn’t plan to bet on.
• Understand the difference between a spread bet and a moneyline bet.
• Don’t just bet with the same sports book. Shop around.
• To be successful, you must identify bets that have value. And that takes work.
• Familiarize yourself with betting resources. I list the top ones in my book.
• Set up accounts at multiple places so you can bet quickly when you see value. Betting lines are not the same everywhere – look for the line that compares most favorably to your predicted game score.
• Read voraciously. Information is king.
• You can use public resources to do your own handicapping or you can find people you like. Do your homework by comparing handicappers and their performance.
• In the NFL, injuries are a key factor in game outcomes. My book lists dozens of other game factors and assigns point values to them. Factors include: home and away, weather, travel distance, coming off Monday night, conference matchups, etc.
• If you’re betting the NFL, start your homework on Monday morning. Look for the betting lines, check on injuries. Be diligent about keeping up to date on the games you like.
• A rule of thumb: Bet favorites early and underdogs late. More money tends to go to favorites as the game nears, raising the spreads for underdogs.
• Betting totals (over/under total points scored in a game) can be smart if you see value. You may think the bookmakers have erred in estimating weather conditions, injuries or other factors. But only bet the over or under if you have a logical reason for doing so.
• Understand that parlays are like a lottery bet – sports books love them because they are much harder to win. While they may be fun, they are not a good value bet.
• Prop bets can be fun, but only bet them if there’s a legitimate reason to do it. Otherwise, you’re just flipping a coin.
• Learn how to buy half-points in a spread bet, and how much to pay. A half-point can make a big difference over the course of a season. My book provides details.
• The same goes for spread numbers. They have specific value. In the NFL, for instance, a point spread of 3 has the highest value, followed by 6, 7 and 14. My book explains how to use point values to help determine the strength and size of your bet.
• Most importantly, be disciplined. Develop your own system and stick to it.
As I wrap up this chapter, let me make one thing abundantly clear: no system is foolproof. There is no magic formula to guarantee wins. You could follow every last bit of my advice and still lose.
Above all, know your limits. As a former degenerate gambler, I cannot stress this enough. Hunt for value and be disciplined with your betting. I promise you this: if you don’t run out of money, you won’t run out of things to bet on.