Sports betting 101

Newcomers to sports betting are easily intimidated by the many options available on a typical oddsmakers’ board. An understanding of the odds used by bookmakers to offer sports wagers is a big step in the direction of wagering successfully.

Using this understanding of odds and how they work, in combination with a little sports wagering strategy, is a powerful one-two punch. Below are discussions of the most common odds used to handicap various sporting events for the purposes of betting.

Common Types of Sports Bets

Using this understanding of odds and how they work, in combination with a little sports wagering strategy, is a powerful one-two punch. Below are discussions of the most common odds used to handicap various sporting events for the purposes of betting.

Bet TypeDescriptionExample LineBet Explained
Point SpreadsA handicap that adds or subtracts to a team's score to make betting even on both sides.Packers +7/Vikings -7 (-110)Pick a side. If betting on the Vikings they would need to win by more than 7. Winning by exactly 7 would be a push.
MoneylinesA straight wager without point spreadsPackers +250, Vikings -300If the Packers win the game, every $100 bet will yield $250 in winnings (plus the original $100 bet).
TotalsA wager on the total score of the game, displayed as an over/under.Packers/Vikings 49.5 o/u (-110)Pick a side. If betting on the over, the total score of the game would need to be over 49.5 (or 50).
ParlaysA combination of betsPackers +230 + Dolphins +330 (Total bet odds +1400)The Packers and Dolphins would both need to win for you to win the bet.
FuturesA bet on a outcome in the distant future.Vikings +1200 To Win Super BowlThe Vikings must win the Super Bowl to win the bet.

Point Spread Bets

One of the most commonly used forms of odds across many different sports, the point spread (or simply “the spread”) is simply a set of numbers used by bookmakers to attract wagers on both sides of a proposition. Technically, the point spread is the eventual difference in terms of points that a team will win or lose by, depending on if they’re the favorite or the underdog.

An NBA point spread may look something like this:

San Antonio +4 Houston

The first team listed is the away team, and the second team is at home. In this case, the Spurs are on the road against Houston. The plus symbol and the number 4 indicates that the point spread is 4 points. Here, the oddsmaker has picked the Rockets to beat the Spurs in Houston by at least 4 points.

A bet on Houston will payout only if the Rockets win by 4 or more points. A bet on the (in this case) underdog Spurs will pay out under two different conditions – if Houston wins by 1, 2, or 3 points, or if San Antonio wins outright.

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Money Line Bets

Different sports favor different types of odds. For example, most pro football bets are on what’s called the “money line.” This is slightly more complex than the point spread.

Wagering on the money line is nothing more than attempting to pick an outright winner, regardless of the score. Essentially, a money line is a point spread bet without the need to worry about all those messy point totals.

Money lines may look more complex, but really they’re designed for ease-of-use. A bettor can learn a lot about a game with a single glance at a money line. A money line for the NFL might look like this:

New England Patriots -200

Houston Texans +220

By looking at these two lines, the bettor learns a lot. He knows who the home team is (always the team on the bottom, in this case Houston), he knows who the favorite is according to the bookmaker (in this case New England, always the team with a “-“ sign next to its name), and he also knows a lot about how much he can win and how much he needs to wager to win a specific amount.

The numbers in a money line indicate two different things, depending on whether the team is a favorite or an underdog. In the case of the favorite, the number next to the “-“ symbol tells bettors how much they’d have to wager in order to win $100.

This number is used because it’s easy to scale up and down. The money line number as assigned to underdogs indicates the potential return on a wager of $100 – in our example, a $100 bet on the Texans to pull off an (unlikely) upset would result in winnings of $220 if they pulled it out.

Totals Bets

Totals bets are some of the simplest odds bettors will find. Sometimes called the “over/under,” a game total is simply the combined point total between two teams in a sporting event. The oddsmaker establishes a number, which varies widely from sport to sport, and bettors wager whether they think the actual total will be “over” or “under” that amount. Totals bets are very useful in sports like football and basketball because it is easy to learn how to find vulnerable totals numbers.

Parlay Bets

A parlay is little more than a combination of more than one bet into a single wager. Parlays are considered exotic because they come with an increased amount of risk compared to the standard point spread, money line, and totals wagers.

Bettors can place parlays on between two and twelve games (even mixing different odds bets) in most pro sports. The more teams involved in a parlay, the larger the potential payday. Parlays payout only if every wager that makes up the combo wins. A single loss and the whole bet is lost.


A Future Bet is a bet on the outcome of a scenario that happens in the long-term, such as a bet on the end of the season or winner of the Super Bowl or World Series. Futures bets are often made by bettors at the beginning of the season but future bets are often available after the season starts with lines moving based on the new information. Futures are not generally available for a specific game, but rather general outcomes.

For example, in the NFL, many sportsbooks offer odds for every team’s chances to be the division winner, make a playoff appearance, become the AFC and NFC Champion or win the Super Bowl.

Although futures bets tie up your funds for a long time, they are enjoyed by sports bettors for their steep odds (and huge payouts) as well a long-term entertainment value over the course of a season.

Line Movement

To understand the concept of “line movement,” you first have to understand how and why bookmakers set odds to begin with. Bookmakers establish odds in order to create a balanced portfolio of customer wagers – in layman’s terms, they want an equal number of bets on either side of a proposition to maximize their profits.

Understanding what lies at the heart of sports betting lines makes it easier to understand why they move and how these changes can benefit sports bettors. The best analogy we’ve yet heard to describe line movement involves imagining being on the scale at the doctor’s office.

The scales that use the weights of varying-size to balance out, and at that balancing point is a person’s weight. Bookmakers adjust their lines much like the nurse adjusts the metal weights, to find a balancing place where their risk (called “exposure”) is as close to 0 as possible.

There are two main reasons that a sport betting line moves significantly. The first involves large wagers by heavyweight bettors. Professional sports handicappers who lay big amounts of money on a contest draw attention from bettors, yes, but more importantly from oddsmakers.

After a major player in the industry makes a move, people are likely to follow. That requires the oddsmaker move the line to adjust for the influx of bets on one side of a contest. The other reason for line movement involves sports news – a major injury or change to a roster can change the likely outcome of a game, and bettors and oddsmakers rush to react.

Popular Sports Betting Systems

Like any form of gambling, systems that purport to help bettors win more often pop up time and again. Some of these procedures are valuable or have valuable features, others are mathematically-unsound or downright bad betting behavior. Finding value in existing sports betting systems while knowing what to ignore is key for sports bettors looking to increase their overall performance and win more often.

Wong Teasers

An example of a popular sports betting strategy is the Wong teaser. Though bookmakers have grown wise to this tactic and changed the way they operate to counteract them, the Wong teaser is a good example of how a sports bettor can use strategy to gain an edge against the house.

The inventor of the Wong teaser researched NFL final scores over the decades and determined that most final scores followed patterns. Specifically, he found that games were decided by three points around 15% of the time, by seven points around 8% of the time, and then by ten and by six points respectively, in order of how common the actual difference in points is. Based on this information, the basic strategy of Wong teasers was developed to help bettors identify wagers which gave them even the slightest edge over the oddsmaker.

Regardless of how a bettor uses the information available to him through the use of odds, they are important tools to the industry, maybe the single factor that unites all forms of sports wagering all over the world. Learning the ins and outs of the most popular bets and odds types is just the first step. Before advancing to advanced sports betting strategies, place a few bets and get a feel for how wagering with odds works.

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