Friday, October 31, 2008


For most of the year I’m content to watch games without mercenary incentive, but that changes in the fall, when foot meets ball. There’s something about point-spread betting that makes handicapping football irresistible—especially the National Football League variety. I take rating the games as a personal challenge, one that spices my every week from the beginning of September until Super Bowl Sunday in February.

When I tell people I bet on the NFL the first question I get is “How much?” “None of your business,” I reply, but I add that it’s not nearly enough to alter my standard of living, win or lose.

The second question usually concerns with whom I bet. Same answer as the first, but I will say he’s a great sportsman and fine fella who serves a societal need. In that capacity, at least.

If it were up to me sports gambling would be legal in this land in places other than the great state of Nevada. People are going to do it whether or not they’re supposed to, and the activity might as well benefit us all by being taxed. Just about every state already allows casinos and horse and dog tracks, and runs dressed-up numbers games called lotteries, for heaven’s sake, so we voters long ago signed off on the moral issue.

Among sports betting’s loudest foes is the NFL, which, interestingly, also is among its greatest beneficiaries. The league decries anything that would divert fan attention from the simple question or winning or losing while publishing the sort of detailed weekly injury reports only gamblers require. It revels in the title of “America’s Sport” while failing to acknowledge that much of the fervor its contests arouse stems from betting interest. When a team is leading late in a game by two touchdowns and its fans are screaming for it to score again, you know the spread is 14 points.

You can bet on other pro sports, too (I leave the college kids alone), but it’s not like betting on the NFL. Baseball games often are decided by a run or two so the point-spread treatment doesn’t work; rather, it’s commonly bet on a money line that makes one team, say, a 5 ½-6 favorite over another, meaning that a $1 wagered on the underdog returns $1.10 while someone betting the favorite has to put up $1.20 to win $1. It’s a game of small differences that prove out over a 162-game season, but are very hard to predict day by day.

Pro basketball’s 82-game regular season is about half as long as baseball’s but the sport’s one-night-stand travel is brutal and its physical pace is demanding. Even good teams take nights off on court but, of course, don’t announce them. Gambling on basketball and baseball are specialized arts that require agility, stamina and deep pockets. The “don’t try this at home” warning fully applies.

By contrast, the 32 NFL teams play just once a week, which allows us plungers plenty of time to analyze the matchups beforehand and heal our wounds afterward. Further, football’s scoring is ideally suited to equalizing games through point spots, or spreads. The league’s best team may be playing the worst but the spread can turn the game into a challenging betting proposition.

To bet football right you have to do what the people who set the spreads do. That’s to maintain what’s called a “power rating,” which quantities the differences among the contestants. Give each team a grade, or score, with the best ones getting the lowest numbers. Update it at least weekly to reflect the teams’ latest performances and their injury situations, as best as you can figure them out.

Say that your PR puts the Giants at 3 and the Bears at 10. That would make the Giants a 7-point favorite on a neutral field. Then plug in the home-field advantage, usually three points. Playing in New York the Giants would be +10, in Chicago +4. If your number differs from the bookie’s by 3 points or more, or if it’s on the opposite side of such “key” numbers as 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 14, 17 or 21—point margins by which many games are decided—you’ve got a bet.

At this point I suppose you’d like some betting advice. My record over the last couple of seasons forces me to demur on grounds of modesty, but I can do better by passing along some tips from the estimable Mr. Lem Banker of Las Vegas, my mentor in this regard. Lem is a gen-u-wine expert, maybe the smartest sports bettor ever. He and I collaborated on a 1986 book on the subject (“Lem Banker’s Book of Sports Betting”) that’s considered a classic. Honest.

Sez Lem:

--Don’t be afraid to bet on underdogs. Most people like to back favorites and the spreads reflect this.

--Favor teams with good rushing attacks over those that mostly pass. Football’s a rough-and-tough game and the teams that run best are the roughest and toughest.

--Injuries to quarterbacks, running backs and pass receivers are overrated. Injuries to offensive linemen and defensive backs are underrated.

--If a team has an extraordinarily good or bad game one week, look for it to revert to form the next.

--Most important, bet what you can afford to lose, not what you’d like to win.

And, hey, what are you going to do with your money these days, put it in the stock market?