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Vegas Handicapping and Fantasy Football - Part 1
Fritz Schlottman


Your fantasy football decisions can gain help from the Mecca of neon lights in the desert if you understand how Vegas sets lines against what actually happens in NFL games. While you may want to know which player you have will be in the higher scoring game, Odds-makers are more worried about making money on every single game. There is information to glean there to add to your arsenal.

Handicapping and lines-making use comparative analysis to quantitatively determine the differences between two teams in any given game. However, there are fundamental differences between lines-making and handicapping which when understood give the informed and skilled handicapper a slight edge over the house.

On the face of it, there should be no difference between the line made on a game and the calculated difference between the same two teams (handicapping). After all, the sports books on and off-shore have more resources and more experience than 99 percent of the sports-betting public. They’re the experts, they should get it right. Theoretically, using the opening line, each side of a wager should have an equal chance (50%) of winning the bet. In theory this works; but this is Vegas after all.

The professional lines-makers should be the best handicappers in the world, unbeatable by professional handicappers and the general public alike, and for the most part they are. Fortunately for the sports-betting public, there’s one important difference: players can gamble, casinos can’t.

I know what you’re thinking right now: casino can’t gamble, you must be crazy! The truth is that Vegas is far more risk-adverse than you realize. Like any other company they have stockholders. These stake-holders demand a certain return on their investment and are quite adverse to risk, especially gambling.

Consider this, in almost every kind of wagering, the casino’s profit is locked in. Their actuaries know with mathematical certainty what the exact payoff of every slot machine and every video poker machine in that place. The moment that button is pushed the register rings-the more you play, they more money they make. Sure, some individuals may come out ahead in the short-term, but taken as a group over the long-haul, Vegas’ math experts know exactly how much profit they will get every year from every machine.

The casino’s profit margin is locked in by a nice bit of software code and the amount generated from the machines is simply a matter of how many times that lever is pulled, the amount bet on each play, times their profit margin. Poker isn’t a risk to the house either. Players “rent” a table and actually play against each other rather than playing against the house. Black Jack is played against the house, but the house uses the game rules to lock in their profit margin.

So, why would casino stock-holders permit a sports book manager to put their investment at risk on a game of chance? The answers is they don’t. The lines maker’s job isn’t to set a line where the exact chance of winning for either side is 50% (handicapping); his job is to set a line where the sports book generates a profit without a substantial risk to investors.

To do this he makes a line where he thinks half of the money will be on the each side of the game, the losers pay the winners and the casinos keep their 10% profit (the vig). This premium (in points) is designed to attract money to one side in a game in order to reduce the casino’s financial exposure. Therefore, there will be a slight difference (just a few percent) between the true line in a game and line set by the pros.

You might be asking yourself why Vegas would permit a handicapper to get a mathematical advantage on a game? Wouldn’t professional gamblers notice and jump quickly on the side with an advantage? The answer is yes professional gamblers do take advantage of the difference between the posted line and the true line and a few make a very nice living doing so. Fortunately for the sports books, there aren’t very many of them, the damage they can do is limited by the amount of money that can be gambled on a single game. The amount of money wagered by professional sports handicappers is a tiny rounding error compared to the huge sums of money bet by the general public. In short, Vegas doesn’t care if the professional handicappers make money on football because the amount of money won is too tiny to affect the casino’s bottom line.

The next logical question you should be asking yourself is, if the casino’s are willing to let the pros make money, someone else must be losing as much if not more? Vegas’ actuaries know that the public isn’t, as a whole, very good at sports gambling. In fact, you’d probably be better off if you picked teams from a hat. At least then you would on average have a 50% chance of winning your bet and you’d just lose the 10% paid to the casino. Actually, the public is slightly worse than 50%. Why? Because most bettors make two mistakes, they bet on favorites and they bet on teams they follow.

It’s very hard (mathematically) to make money betting on chalk every week. The psychology is simple, players can find lots of reasons to bet on the favorite, after all they wouldn’t be favorites in the first place unless ‘Vegas thought they were supposed to win the game! Bettors have a much harder time finding reasons to put their hard-earned money on teams that everyone thinks will lose the game.

The lines-maker knows that most of the money will come down on the favorite, and if he sets the line to where both sides have a 50% chance to win and the favorite comes through, the casinos are going to take a financial beating. To make sure the money bet on the game is more even (and therefore less risk to shareholders) he will adjust the line enough to attract money to the underdog, so the dog gets more points or better odds. Many of there more successful ‘Vegas handicappers bet only dogs because the know they have a better than 50% chance to win the game right at the start while the general public that’s betting on the chalk has less than a 50% chance of winning.

The other reason the general public loses money is that they bet on teams they like and follow. Teams that are popular, called “public” teams by the pros, receive more support from the general public than do less popular teams. These teams tend to be exciting offensive teams or teams that have a large following because they’ve been winners in the past. The Denver Broncos is a good example of a public team. Far more money is wagered on Denver than most of their opponents despite the fact that Denver only covers (22-25-1 2001-2003) 47% of its games.

So, you now know that you can beat the house betting the football. So how do you do it? I will briefly describe several ways, one simple and some more complex, that the pros use to cover the spread in this and future articles.

Method #1: Bet on the Winning Team

Ok, on the face of it this method appears absurd. All you do is look at the two teams, ignoring the point-spread entirely, decide which team is going to win the game, and then go to the window and bet on the team you think will win the game. It couldn’t be that easy, can it? Sure it can, lets look at some numbers.

Who were the six best teams in the league last year? New England (14-2), Kansas City (13-3), Philadelphia (12-4), St. Louis (12-4), Indianapolis (12-4), and Tennessee (12-4). Together they were a combined 75-21 or a winning pct. of 78.125. Their record against the spread (ATS) was New England (13-2-1), Kansas City (10-6), Philadelphia (11-5), St. Louis (9-6-1), Indianapolis (9-6-1), and Tennessee (8-7-1). They were a combined (60-32-4) ATS for a 65.21 winning percentage. A good handicapper in Vegas hits in the high 50% range, so if you had just bet on the six best teams every week you would have beaten 99% of the pros.

Does the opposite work as well? Can you win money by betting against the team that will lose the game? The records for the four worst teams in the NFL (2003-04) were New York Giants (4-12), Arizona (4-12), Oakland (4-12), and San Diego (4-12) for a combined 16-48 record and a winning percentage of 25%. Their ATS records were New York Giants (3-11-2), Arizona (6-10), Oakland (3-12-1), and San Diego (6-10) for a combined ATS record of 18-43-3 and 29.5 ATS winning percentage. If you had bet against these dreadful squads every week you would have won an amazing 70.5 percent of your wagers!

So, if it’s as simple as deciding which team is going to win the game, how do I do that? Ask yourself this question, why do teams lose football games? Answer, they get out gained and outscored week-in, week-out.

  Pts Scored Pts Allowed Difference
New England 21.8 14.9 6.9
Kansas City 30.2 20.8 9.4
Philadelphia 23.4 17.9 5.5
St. Louis 27.9 20.5 7.4
Indianapolis 27.9 21.0 6.9
Tennessee 27.2 20.2 7.0

Lets look at our best teams again to see if good teams really do outscore and outgone their opponents. First, let’s look at scoring. What was the difference between what these teams’ offenses scored and the points their defenses gave up?

Not only were these teams beating other squads they were beating them by a touchdown (7.18) on average.

  Yds Per Play Allowed Difference
New England 4.8 4.4 .4
Kansas City 5.9 5.4 .5
Philadelphia 5.3 5.0 .3
St. Louis 5.2 5.2 0
Indianapolis 5.6 5.2 .4
Tennessee 5.4 5.3 .1

Now let’s look at yardage. Do good teams gain more on offense then they surrender on defense?

These teams aren’t getting out gained by their opponents, but they blowing them off the ball either. The best teams against the spread ( New England, Kansas City, and Philadelphia) were out gaining their opponents by a half yard while the Rams and Titans were no better than break even. If you were going to pick two squads to have down years this season, which teams would you choose?

  Pts Scored Pts Allowed Difference
NY Giants 15.2 24.2 -9.0
Arizona 14.1 28.2 -14.1
Oakland 16.9 23.7 -6.8
San Diego 19.6 27.6 -8.0

Again, does the opposite approach work? Do bad teams get outscored by a touchdown a game and do they get out gained by half a yard on each play?

Yes, they lose their games by more than a touchdown each week.

  Yds Per Play Allowed Difference
NY Giants 4.7 5.0 -0.3
Arizona 4.6 5.5 -0.9
Oakland 4.6 5.7 -1.1
San Diego 5.3 5.2 -0.1

Do they get out gained as well?

The numbers indicate that bad teams get out gained and really bad teams get out gained substantially.

So what have we learned? If you want to beat the avenue using this first method you 1) identify those teams that outscore their opponents by a touchdown or more and 2) out gain their opponents. Bet on these winners. Also identify teams that are outscored by their opponents by a touchdown or more and are out gained by their opponents. Bet against these teams every week. Do this and you will be right more than wrong this season.

In part 2 of this series I will go into a proven handicapping system. Best of luck this season.

PART 2 >