Sports handicapping is the art and science of predicting the outcome of sports events.
It involves in-depth research, analysis, and the use of available information to make informed betting decisions.
Whether you’re a seasoned bettor or a beginner, understanding the nuances of handicapping can significantly enhance your betting experience.
It’s been said about our business that it’s a hard way to make an easy living and I couldn’t agree more.
In order to be known as a sharp you have to put a lot of work into beating the sportsbooks.
Professional betting is a tough gig, one that a bad day can cost you six figures.
There is a mental aspect that you have to prepare for, but before you get into that you have to know how to actually beat the lines and win enough of your bets to cover the vig and actually show a profit.
I don’t think you can read this article and go from a casual, losing gambler to a winning one.
That is going to take watching a lot of games, learning how to code so you can scrape data and build models, and years of experience actually doing it.
However, I do think we can help you win more of your bets with some common sense approaches explained below.
What is Sports Handicapping?
At its core, sports handicapping is about using available information to predict the outcome of a sports event. It’s more than just guessing; it’s about making informed decisions based on research and analysis. Handicapping takes the guesswork out of betting, aiming to increase the probability of success.
Why Try to Improve Your Handicapping?
- Accuracy: Handicapping increases the accuracy of your predictions, giving you a better chance of winning.
- Informed Decisions: It allows bettors to make decisions based on data and analysis rather than just luck.
- Maximize Returns: By understanding the odds and potential outcomes, you can place bets that have a higher chance of yielding returns.
Keys to Successful Sports Handicapping for Beginners
- Know the Odds: Understand the opening odds are set by a small group of linemakers. Watch out for any significant movements because that is going to tell you where the sharp money is. These sharp bettors shape the market and help the books adjust their lines. When the line moves investigate why? Did it cross a key number and mean more? Is someone injured, is there weather, or did a sharp group just take a position on the game?
- Shop Around: You can’t just focus on watching the moves, but you have to make sure that you have multiple outs to place your wagers and that you are shopping around to get the best number. There is simply no excuse to bet at a half-point worse line when you can easily get a better number somewhere else.
- Be Updated: Stay updated with injuries, starting lineups, and recent performances of teams or players. If you don’t have the latest information it’s tough to be more accurate than people who do. Factors like weather, recent news, and other external factors can influence the game. If there is an injury at a key position it’s important to know who the backup is and how he compares to the starter. Do you look at the injury reports passed the star players? Sometimes an offensive lineman or a defensive player can have a real impact on a game and that is an edge most square gamblers will miss.
- Understand Matchups: Analyze how teams or players match up against each other. Even undefeated teams can have weaknesses in the same areas as a poor team’s strengths. Does a team look strong because their previous games all came against inferior opponents? Does their opponent look weak because they have faced a murderer’s row to start the year? Is this an inferior opponent with a rival up next on the schedule? Did one team just pull off an upset so is prime for a letdown spot?
- Motivation: Is a team looking for revenge? Did any players used to play for the opponent and felt disrespected? Is one team fighting for a playoff berth or positioning while the other team is ready to be done and off to the beach? Are these teams rivals who they will try hard against no matter what? Does the good team have nothing to play for or will be resting key players? Sometimes players and coaches feel like their jobs are on the line. They will pull out all of the stops to give their team the best chance at victory. Other times there is plenty of locker room, bulletin board, and motivational material that coaches use to jack their players up a notch.
- Consider the Venue: The location of the game, known as the home-field advantage, can influence the outcome. How was the travel to the game? Is the team rested or towards the end of a long road trip? Are the time zones the same or is there a significant difference? If a west coast team is playing at noon Eastern that is pretty early compared to what they are used to. The weather definitely can have an effect as well as teams used to playing in warm climates tend to struggle when it’s colder up north. Will there be extreme weather like snow or high winds? That definitely limits scoring. But not only that, you need to look at where the team’s previous games were played. Maybe the bad start can be attributed to playing a heavy chunk of games on the road. Or, scoring could be down due to bad conditions in an early game.
- Clear Your Mind: Avoid biases and preconceived notions. There are a lot of ways your mind can trick you. Knowing this can help you avoid some common traps. You need to stay away from the ticket window or your online account if your mind is in an altered state. I’ve seen far too many huge bets made after someone has had a few too many. If you know you are going to be drinking while watching games get your action in before you start.
- Follow the Crowd: See where most bettors are placing their money but don’t blindly follow. In fact, in sports like the NFL fading the popular public bets can be a profitable strategy.
- Don’t Just Bet to Bet: One of the hardest things to do, even for experienced bettors, is to know when to take the day off. A lot of bettors get used to the idea that they are going to bet on every game that they watch. Don’t fall into this trap! You’ll find yourself inventing reasons to be on a game, even if there is no logic behind it. Knowing when not to bet is important to being successful at sports betting.
How Does Handicapping Work for Different Sports
Different sports have unique factors to consider:
- Team Sports: Consider team strengths, recent play, matchup advantages, and home-field advantage. Teams are made up of individuals so you have to consider player performances, lineups, and rosters as well.
- Individual Sports: For sports like tennis or golf, consider the athletes’ recent forms, past matchups, and other individual factors.
I’ve put together individual handicapping articles by sport. These can help you dive into the leagues that you are trying to analyze and learn some specific factors that we look at.
Where to Find Handicapping Information
- Sports Media: Reliable sources like ESPN and FOX Sports provide valuable insights.
- Experienced Bettors: Learn from the best handicappers and understand their strategies.
- General News and Weather: External factors can influence the game’s outcome.
- Analytics Sites: There are sport-specific sites that do deep dives into advanced analytics. KenPom in CBB and DataGolf for the PGA are two perfect examples. Sometimes finding hidden gems can lead to an edge.
Sports handicapping is an essential aspect of sports betting. It’s not just about luck but making informed decisions based on research and analysis. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced bettor, understanding the art of handicapping can significantly enhance your betting experience.
Sports Handicapping Tools You Can Use
- Betting Odds Converter – our converter tool to help you transform and understand the lines across different formats.
- Parlay Payout Calculator – this generates the expected payout when you enter the true numbers that you are getting for each leg.
Learn the Different Handicapping Styles
There are many different ways to approach sports betting and no two handicappers are going to approach things exactly alike. That’s what makes this industry so interesting to me. The first thing anyone who is trying to beat the betting markets needs to decide is what kind of plan you have. How are you going to attack the markets and what type of bettor do you want to be? Where do you think your edges like?
Everyone has a different background and you need to use that background to approach your wagering. There are several different handicapping styles that you can use:
- Game Watching
- Information Gathering
- Reading Markets
Not that these are an all-encompassing list but it gives you an idea. You have to decide what fits your personality, time availability, and your general way of doing things. I know modeling is really popular and is something used by the best professional gamblers in the world, but it’s not the only way.
Do you have any experience building models? Do you have a stat background or are you a programmer? Do you even know how to use Excel? If the answer is no, then modeling might not be the best fit for you. It’s just going to be tough for you to go head-to-head modeling against guys who have twenty years of experience in their job, or went to school for it.
You are going to be better off choosing a style that is a better fit for who you are as a person and your skillset.
This is something most people are comfortable with. You get into sports betting because you like watching sports and have been doing it your whole life. Maybe you started watching games with your family growing up. You’ve watched thousands of hours of sports in your life. You know the players, teams, and coaches.
The downside is that it is very difficult to get usable information just from watching games. Do you pull things out of watching a game that other people can’t? Most people think they can and they are experts at it, but this is one of the cognitive biases in sports betting that most people have to overcome.
It’s also very time-consuming to watch every single game. If you tried to do that with the NFL then maybe you can fit it into your schedule, but when it comes to college basketball and you have 300 teams playing twice a week, that’s just not feasible. If you only watch a small sample of games you might catch teams when they are playing really well or on other other hand, when they are having an off night.
If you are going to use game watching as part of your plan of attack, then try to make sure you are getting something out of it. Is there a player dealing with an injury? Then maybe it’s worth a watch to see how they look. If there are new players, like rookies or new additions to a team, it might be worth getting a look at them to see how they fit in with their team or at this level of competition.
Don’t waste your time on games that are out of hand. You aren’t going to get a lot of useful information if a team is up big or down a lot because they are going to play differently than they would if it was a competitive game.
Sometimes it’s a better use of your 2-3 hours to focus on reading articles about the teams and going over the box scores than watching the game. There is a lot of downtime no matter the sport. Just remember the cost-benefit analysis. If you are watching games you are taking up time that you could have spent doing something else.
And if you are watching, make sure you are taking notes and recording valuable information. You can’t rely on your memory alone to capture all the information you are gathering.
There are many successful bettors out there that do not watch any games. They are strictly numbers based and they don’t want to be biased by seeing a small sample size. They don’t even like the sweat of the action.
Some handicappers love reading about teams, going over box scores and digging in to see if there are any nuggets that can give them an edge on a game. You might read interview transcripts looking for tidbits on a change in coaching philosophy, quotes, situational angle, motivation, injury news, or rumors. If the info is really good then it’s going to give you that edge you need to be a long term winner.
You’ll always get value in gathering weather information. Paying attention to the forecast and any interviews where the players or coaches talk about how they are going to approach a game in certain conditions. The trick is putting together a list of sites as your go-tos for the information. You need a list for every sport, you need Twitter accounts that are worth following, and then go to them regularly to consume as much as you can.
You can bookmark your resources, use a spreadsheet to track links, or whatever fits your style. Then keep going back. Sometimes you’ll do a deep dive into the information, other times you do quick scans to see if there is anything you need to dig into further. Even if you spent all day scouring the internet for news, you’ll only get to a small percentage of what’s out there. So skim and look at headlines so you can cover more ground.
The key pieces of information to gather are what’s changing. How is something going to be different in the future from what we have seen in the past. It might be a lineup change, injury, coach changing philosophy, or anything like that. Basketball is great for this. If a player goes down, the coach might say in an interview how they are going to change their style of play. If a big man goes down they might try to speed the game up, or if their point guard is down they might try to slow it down. That kind of information can be a gold mine.
If a coach gets pissed in the post-game presser and talks about how bad the team’s defense is, what do you think they are going to spend their time on in practice the following few days on? Probably defense right? That should mean lower scoring games coming up. It’s something you aren’t going to catch unless you are out there putting the time in.
Honestly, no matter what your main focus is with sports betting, you need to add information gathering to your arsenal. Even if you are a modeler who generates a really accurate number, you can gather new information that could tell you why your number is off and cancel any potential bets, or take a close call into a must play.
The general public looks at models and get intimidated thinking that they could never do that, or it’s too hard to get started. For young bettors who have experience in stats, programming languages or Excel this can be a great way to get started. The guys who are good at modeling are very gifted and can have a significant edge over the sports books.
The types of people who model are very into numbers. They are looking at advanced stats, key metrics, and they have a deeper understandings of which teams and players are better and why.
The first step to modeling is to gather as much information as you think would be useful. You want a lot of data so you don’t fall victim to a small sample size. They you throw the numbers into Excel or using a programming language like R or Python. Use regression or another type of machine learning model where it takes the data leading up to a certain game, and find out what is actually predictive of the outcome. Make sure you hold data back so that you can back test, then realize there is going to be a margin of error no matter what. The more confident you are in your model, and the more sophisticated it is, the less margin of safety you will require to actually make a bet based on your model.
One thing about reading markets in general is the importance of shopping around for the best odds.
It doesn’t matter how good you are at picking winners, you are going to have a higher ROI if you are betting into better numbers than if you take worse lines. That is why our live odds feed is such a good tool for gamblers.
I would say the market readers are the guys who are watching the direction of line moves, seeing the movement patterns, looking at which books have unique numbers and if they are square or sharp. This can also be called top down handicapping.
This style is more handicapping the market than it is specific games. It’s knowing which books are sharp, which books just increased their limits and are starting to get sharper action, and which moves are probably head fakes by sharper groups to adjust the line to where they actually want to bet the game.
For reading markets you need an odds screen and experience in just watching markets react.
Nowadays this is a little more difficult because the books themselves are watching what everyone else is doing.
They all have odds screens and if they see a move, they might move their numbers on air. They don’t even have to take a bet before they start adjusting their numbers.
You still can win with this method if you know which books move first, who follows, and who is willing to book their own opinions. This changes by sport and time of day so it’s a little more nuanced.
It can be a winning strategy, but I think books will look to limit you faster if you are just watching for sharp line moves and following along. You’ll win but at the cost of being limited.
I do think it’s important to read the market so you have an understanding of what’s going on.
Why did the line move a couple of points?
Was it because of an injury, news, or weather?
Or does a sharp group really think higher or lower than you do of a certain team?
Is the public on one side and the line moved the other way? This is called a reverse line move.
You’ll start to see patterns of teams sharp groups are fading or playing on, and how that changes throughout a season.
You might also be able to scalp lines, but this is way less common than it was years ago. Back in the early days of online betting you could bet one team at +105 and get the opponent at +105 at a competing shop. You just don’t get the same guarantee payouts as you used to, but there are times in the smaller markets when this kind of value is still out there. But you might also just want to take the opinion of the sharper book and beat the weaker book out of some free, guaranteed money.
This is a broad term but specialists can be guys who focus on certain sports or even on certain bet types. There are guys out there who think they have a major edge on totals, and won’t bet anything but over/unders. This can be a softer market where the limits are lower, so you know the books aren’t as confident they have better numbers than bettors.
If you enjoy a niche market like golf, auto racing, or the WNBA you can have a lot of success. The odds makers don’t pay as much attention to these sports because the volume isn’t as big. Plus you only have so much time in the day, so if you are spending all your time on a sport that is an afterthought to the casinos you can find an edge.
Player props are a niche that gamblers definitely can have an edge on. The books put those up because recreational gamblers think it’s fun to bet on their favorite players, but there isn’t much time put into making those numbers as accurate as possible. The ROI can be in the double digits here, but the downside is you won’t be able to get as much action down as the mainstream sides.
The other problem with betting niche markets is that your accounts won’t last as long. Sportsbooks know these markets are weak, and if you are beating them easily then they are going to cut your action. Plus you are going to be dealt a higher vig. It’s not uncommon to see -120 on both sides instead of the standard -110.
A group of gamblers who mop up on player props is the DFS community. They already have strong models on specific players from their fantasy days. They can take these same models and apply them to player props and absolutely crush it.
If you have a small bankroll or are just getting started, I think the specialist route is a great way to get started. There are markets that are easier to beat, and if you aren’t betting much you don’t have to worry about the small limits or getting cut down.
We talk more about specialists in sports handicapping here.
If you want to achieve the most success possible then you should use multiple methods listed above.
These are the hybrid handicappers and they are the cream of the crop.
Watch games to gather the information you need with an eye test.
Scour the internet for as much information as possible.
Read the markets so you can pick up on anything you might be missing.
You should have your own model to give you a general idea of what you would make the line yourself.
Even if you don’t specialize exclusively in a smaller market, you should grab as much low-hanging fruit as you possibly can.
General Articles by Us
- Common Myths
- Understanding Parlay Odds
- Don’t Trust Your Gut
- Understanding Reverse Line Movement
- Money Management