Greetings, novice sports bettors, and welcome to the future!
The Supreme Court just overturned the federal laws that kept sports gambling illegal across most of the country. Betting parlors will be open for business at one New Jersey racetrack by Memorial Day, with more across the nation opening as soon as states scramble to adjust to the new laws, or lack thereof. By the start of football season, the opportunity to wager 100 percent legally on NFL games (and other less interesting sporting events) may literally be at your fingertips!
As law-abiding American citizens, most of us have never placed a bet on any sporting event in our lives, except maybe in March Madness pools that are really "for entertainment purposes only" (wink, wink). That means our first tentative experiments with sports gambling will be much like our honeymoon nights and our first sips of alcohol on our 21st birthdays: exciting, mysterious, somewhat clumsy maiden journeys into uncharted territory.
Luckily, Bleacher Report is here with tips and suggestions that will have you placing bets like a character from A Bronx Tale in no time. Or if that doesn't sound sensible to you for some reason, we can at least get you a little more comfortable for slight dabbling in your new right to add action to your NFL action.
How to place a bet
The best way to explain how to place an NFL bet is to clear up a few misconceptions about 21st century sports wagering.
• How your grandpa thinks bets are currently placed: Bettors sneak into a seedy bar under a railroad trestle, filled with people with guys like Walter White, Nicely-Nicely and Tony Bagabocceballs. There, scofflaws hand wads of twenties over to scar-faced men in fedoras and mumble things like "Let it ride on the Cleveland Browns. Papa needs a new pair of Air Monarchs!" If the bets pays off, they squander the money on wanton women and bathtub gin (which is probably a real thing in Brooklyn bars). If they lose, a guy who looks like Danny Trejo breaks their fingers in the parking lot.
• How bets are really currently placed: Bettors call their college roommate or bartender's cousin or some other side-hustling local bookie about 20 minutes before kickoff, right after Jay Glazer announces the final injury reports on the Fox pregame show. That person processes bets for someone else, with several intermediaries before any money leaves the suburbs and gets anywhere near a character from Goodfellas. Your friendly neighborhood bookie deals in small sums and doesn't have knuckle-breakers on their payroll. They're more likely to tattle to a tardy gambler's spouse or parents, which is a far more effective deterrent against getting in trouble.
• How legal sports bets will be placed: States that legalize gambling will authorize sportsbooks to operate at racetracks, casinos and other locations, including stadiums (depending on the league and state). Sportsbooks look like sports bars, but with teller windows along the walls instead of fake Irish Pub knickknacks. But most casual wagers will use smartphone apps like the ones both Las Vegas and international betting agencies have operated for years. Placing a bet will be like setting a fantasy lineup or purchasing a last-second anniversary gift. And don't worry about the security and confidentiality of these semi-murky financial transactions: The pornography industry blazed those trails decades ago.
How much to wager
It goes without saying that you shouldn't blow Junior's college savings on a three-team parlay. That said, the thrill of gambling comes from the sense of real risk and the potential for real rewards. Responsible bettors wager just enough to pique their emotional investment in a game, but not enough to leave them sobbing silently in a parked car and wondering how to explain Cancelled Christmas to the family after the Chargers miss a last-second field goal.
One good rule of thumb: Never wager more in one NFL weekend than you would spend during a typical night on the town with pals. If you are the type who buys rounds of single malt scotch at clubs with roped-off lounges, that could be a few hundred bucks. If you are more like me and wrap your Buffalo wing bones in a cocktail napkin so you can later use them to make soup stock, it might be far less. Either way, you can "punish" yourself for a bad weekend of bets by staying home on a few Saturday nights, balancing your entertainment budget with minimal guilt.
Here's a tip for older first-time gamblers: Wager the amount that, if your child asked to borrow it, would prompt an emotional reaction but not an angry-parent rant. Some examples:
• Question: "Dad, can I have five bucks for pizza?"
• Reaction: "Of course, my child. Cherish your carefree youth!"
• Gambling parallel: You are not wagering enough.
• Reaction: "Dad, can I have 500 bucks to stay at the Shaky Alibi Motel during prom weekend?"
• Reaction: "YOU ARE GROUNDED, AND I WILL PERFORM BACKGROUND CHECKS ON ALL YOUR FRIENDS!"
• Gambling parallel: You are wagering too much.
• Question: "Dad, can I have 50 bucks for a deluxe-edition download of the new God of Overfort video game?"
• Answer: "Kids your age don't understand the value of a dollar like we did!"
• Gambling parallel: That's probably your wagering sweet spot.
Talking like a gambler
In the modern, app-driven age, you won't have to worry about sounding like a fuddy-duddy who wandered into a naughty novelty shop when placing your first bets. But you will want to be a little savvy with the lingo when talking about your bets if you hope to hang with or even impress other gamblers. Master these phrases and you will sound like you grew up hanging around weird old men at dog tracks:
• "I put a quarter on the Bills and two bucks on the Dolphins." Referring to large sums of money as small change makes you sound cool. So in this example, you bet $25 on the Bills and $200 on the Dolphins—and are probably about to lose $225. Also important to note: Dimes are a drug reference; try to keep your legalization movements straight.
• "I teased the lines on the Bills and Dolphins." The sports book allows you to fiddle with point spreads in exchange for lumping two bets together. So here, you exchanged lower odds of winning any one bet for the feeling that you were doing something clever. Yep, the term teased is being used exactly backwards.
• "That spread moved like crazy all week": Say a team opened as a four-point favorite before the quarterback got hurt, the running back got arrested, and Jim Mora Jr. was hired as assistant coach; now it is a six-point underdog. You can sound smart and informed to other gamblers by mentioning that you were tracking spreads all week. You sound less smart and informed when you admit that you locked a car payment in on the team on Tuesday when it was a four-point favorite.
• "Road dogs break your heart": Rough translation: "Maybe we shouldn't bet on the Chargers to upset the Patriots in the snow in a game that starts at 9 a.m. California time."
• "Let's get some action on the late game": Rough translation: "I don't have anywhere to go tomorrow. Please hang out and watch football with me for four more hours."
Understanding the point spread
The point spread is the most misunderstood number in sports. Contrary to popular opinion, the purpose of the point spread is not to disrespect your team (We're six-point underdogs? Probability itself is just a hater) or even trick you into betting on the wrong side. The point spread exists to balance wagers as close to 50-50 as possible between the two opponents.
The house doesn't win by getting the world to guess wrong; it wins by paying the winners with the losers' money and earning income from the "juice"—or the "vig" or "vigorish," as your shady uncle still calls it. (Or as it will probably be called in our enlightened new legal-gambling times, the "service fee" or "sales tax.")
The point spread was invented in the 1940s by a math teacher-turned-bookie named Charles McNeil to make balancing the action on Patriots-Browns or Ohio State-Bible Choir State possible. Fun fact: McNeil also taught math to future U.S. President John F. Kennedy. You can look it up!
So if you see "Patriots (-14)," it means the sportsbook thinks that it can get equal action on both sides by guessing the Patriots will win by 14 or more points, probably because they are angrily extra-motivated by accusations of cheating or coming to terms with their own mortality or something. If you pick the Patriots and they win 35-22, you lose.
By the way: The Patriots are 0-5 against spreads of 14 or more points in the past three years. When the spread is that big, per Pro Football Reference, the NFL as a whole is 3-10 against the spread (or "ATS," as the cool gamblers say) since 2015. Those big spreads are a sign that many casual gamblers are betting based on the reputations of the teams, so the sportsbooks are trying to entice action toward the underdogs. That means you shouldn't wager along with the homers and bandwagon jumpers. And you thought this article would be nothing but gags!
Here are some other spread-related situations to avoid:
• The Ravens as heavy favorites
• The Ravens as underdogs
• The Ravens in general
• Teams that are "better than their stats indicate" (there's no such thing)
• West Coast teams in East Coast early games (especially the Chargers)
• The Bengals in any game that matters
• Good teams facing bad opponents at the end of three-week road trips
• The Saints as road favorites
• Any NFC West team favored by more than four points
• The Cowboys the moment the national narrative switches over to how great they are
One last bit of real math-guy advice: The sudden influx of millions of dollars in casual wagers will cause some wild point-spread swings over the next few years, especially early in NFL seasons, when scads of new bettors try out their apps by throwing $50 each at their favorite teams. Shrewd bettors will be on the lookout for overvalued popular teams or undervalued teams with a high-profile injury or two.
Special types of bets
There is more to sports betting than picking winners. Once gambling is legal in your local community, you will have plenty of options to choose from:
• The over-under or "number" is the number of points/goals/runs the teams are projected to score in a game combined (or can be applied to longer-term bets, like how many games a team will win in a season). If the over-under is 48.5 and you bet the over, you win if the final score is 28-21 but lose if it's 28-20. It doesn't matter which of the teams wins or loses, making it the perfect antidote to the Monday Night or Thursday Night Football blues. While most fans complain about how boring the Giants-Falcons game is, you'll hang on to every fourth-quarter 49-yard Matt Bryant field goal. Just keep in mind that while betting the "over" is fun, only masochists actually bet the "under" because that forces them to root against touchdowns, which is a lot like hoping to never experience joy.
• The money line is the point spread's boring cousin. It's for baseball wagers and folks who try too hard to be different.
• Parlays are bundled bets on three or more games, often with perks like adjusted point spreads to entice bettors. Playing parlays is a lot like playing poker when aces, one-eyed jacks and the Pokemon cards your nephew slipped into the deck are wild. Real gamblers don't like them much, in part because the house can hide bad odds under all the bells and whistles, but mostly because they are ridiculous.
• Daily fantasy is a type of gambling that slipped through the legal cracks by pretending to be a form of fantasy football. But seriously, you pay a "fee" to see if Aaron Rodgers can throw for a lot of yards and Todd Gurley can score some touchdowns on Sunday morning, then collect a "prize" by Sunday evening? Who's kidding who, folks? Anyway, it's fun and even more not-illegal now than it was last week!
• Preseason win total bets are for people who hate instant gratification and would rather treat sports gambling like a long-term stock investment. (Note: Sports gambling is not at all like a long-term stock investment; oh God, what would even make you think that!?) The sportsbook over-unders for each NFL team's total wins are already available, so you can place a wager the moment it's legal in your state.
Wait…I'm in New Jersey. And the "house" seriously thinks the Broncos can win 7.5 games this year? I might just have to make some plans for Memorial Day weekend.
Beating the house
Sportsbooks know more about football than you or I do. They've hired the smartest sports statisticians for decades and were compiling data and using analytics before Billy Beane started collecting baseball cards. You cannot beat the house.
You can, however, beat the hordes of casual bettors who go out of their way to lose to the house each week by making foolish, random wagers.
Here are some tips for coming out slightly ahead, or at least not too far behind:
• Wager selectively: Only bet a handful of games each week. The more events you bet on, the more your gambling experience will be like those office pools that are won by someone whose 4-year-old picked the winners based on favorite colors. If you find yourself betting just because it's Monday night and your pals are doing it, either bet your rock-bottom minimum or don't cave in to peer pressure like an overgrown middle schooler.
• Use "expert" advice wisely: You should seek out good sources of data (full disclosure: I have friends in this industry) and make sure you have access to accurate injury reports and other common-sense information about teams and players. You should not respond to come-ons that read "Get Access to Vegas Vincenzo's Six Zillion Diamond Lock of the Week for just $29.99 (per day)." Your internet security software probably hides those sites behind Whoa! Have you examined what you are doing with your life? warning screens anyway. And never bet on preseason games, no matter how much Vegas Vincenzo or anyone else claims to know about the undrafted rookies who will be playing in the fourth quarter.
• Come up with your own system: Maybe you mostly bet home favorites. Or always bet against teams coming off Monday night wins. Or search for appealing "overs" in dome games. Or look for weather advantages (Florida teams in September heat; the Bills or Packers in the snow). Find a system you are comfortable with and stick with it if it makes sense to you. When they are based on some kind of strategy, wins are more satisfying and losses don't feel quite like you just lit money on fire.
• Wager socially: Gambling, like drinking, should be a social event—a chance to bond over some shared triumphs or misery. You will not get rich from sports gambling, but you could go broke if you don't exercise some caution and moderation. There's only one real way to "beat the house" when gambling, and that's to have as much fun as possible for every dollar you spend.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.