Why You'll Lose Your Super Bowl Bet

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Las Vegas oddsmakers favor the Packers over the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. But Brendan Koerner, contributing editor for Wired, says save your money. The biggest gambling day of the year attracts fans and pro gamblers alike, but betting on professional football, Koerner warns, "is a mug's game."

NEAL CONAN, host:

You may have heard, the Green Bay Packers play the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday in Super Bowl XLV, which also happens to be the biggest betting day of the year in this country. Gambling on football is based on the point spread. In this game, for example, Green Bay is favored to win by two and a half points. If you bet $100 on Green Bay and they win by three points or more, you collect a hundred dollars. But if they score only one or two points more than Pittsburgh or lose outright, you have to pay 110. That $10 fee is known as the vigorish, or the vig.

In a piece on theatlantic.com, Brendan Koerner argues that betting on pro football is a mug's game and claims there are better ways for sports gamblers to cash in. If you're betting on the Super Bowl, what went into your calculation? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Brendan Koerner is a contributing editor for Wired Magazine and joins us from our bureau in New York.

Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. BRENDAN KOERNER (Contributing Editor, Wired Magazine): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And the point spread is often hailed as a creation of genius, much simpler to understand than, say, estimating the odds on Green Bay are - and I'm making this up - four to five.

Mr. KOERNER: Yeah. That's exactly right. There was actually an inventor of the point spread named Charles McNeil. He was actually one of John F. Kennedy's prep school teachers before he became a securities analyst in Chicago in the '30s. But his real passion was gambling. And he eventually quit his job as an analyst to become a gambler full time. Was so successful, in fact, in betting on baseball in the '30s that he was banned from pretty much every bookie joint in Chicago. So he set up his own bookmaking operation. And that's where he realized, you could get people interested in betting on football, which was then a very minor sport compared to baseball, by having them bet not on odds but rather by how many points one team might win by.

CONAN: And the same system is also used on basketball, but you say, in fact, it's so simple, it's dumb.

Mr. KOERNER: Well, it's ingenious because it's really effective at getting 50 percent of the money on one side and 50 percent on the other, which is ideal for a bookmaking operation. More than that, I think it's much easier for people to understand than odds. We kind of have a national math anxiety. So when odds pop up, our eyes kind of glaze over, mine included. But points and how many points a team will win by is much easier to process. It's much more intuitive for an amateur.

CONAN: So if the point spread, well, is a perfect exemplar of the market forces, that if you set the line at six and money pours in on one team, you adjust the line to five or four or whatever it is until you get half the money on one side and half the money on the other.

Mr. KOERNER: That's exactly right. The line will keep on moving pretty much right up to game time.

CONAN: And so what's wrong with it in terms of making a bet and making some money?

Mr. KOERNER: Well, there's nothing wrong with it from an entertainment perspective. Certainly it's fun to be betting. I'm taking the Packers on Sunday. But in terms of being professional, it's really not the way to go. I kind of wrote that piece in atlantic.com based on a relative of mine who's a professional gambler and quite successful over his long career. And what I learned from him is that real professionals don't just make one bet per game. They pursue hedging strategies in football. That means making multiple bets. For example, the over/under, how many cumulative points, how many touchdowns will be scored, how many turnovers. Side bets like that. The same way Wall Street traders hedge their bets.

CONAN: You can get all kinds of crazy bets on the Super Bowl - which team scores first, which team scores last, first team to kick a field goal - all that kind of stuff, and crazier than that. Those are fairly conventional.

Mr. KOERNER: Yeah. I remember hearing one story about a man who bet a million dollars on the opening coin flip when I was a kid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KOERNER: You know, that guy may have had a gambling problem.

CONAN: You also say that it is - if you're a professional gambler, you're better off with baseball and the ponies.

Mr. KOERNER: Yeah. Baseball in particular. Baseball still operates by odds. And also, it's easier to handicap because so much rides on one player, and that's the pitchers in the game. So real professional gamblers do pay attention to betting on baseball, which very few casual gamblers, such as myself, ever considered doing. As for horseracing, it's really something where the more work you put into it, the more you can get out of it. Intelligence really matters in horseracing. My relative would actually move to a town with an operational track for an entire season. He would go down to, say, Miami for several months at a time and just hang out at the track down there, gather intelligence about horses, about jockeys.

Not only that, but also understanding parlay is very, very key in horse racing. Knowing when it makes sense to make to bet on multiple chains of races. You can get a bigger a payoff.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. The Pick 6 or even the Exacta or - well, whatever, the Daily Double.

Mr. KOERNER: My relative, actually, I believe, paid for the down payment on one of his houses because he had a stake in a Pick 6 win ticket.

CONAN: Which could pay off in, well, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mr. KOERNER: Enormously, yes.

CONAN: Yeah. Our guest is Brendan Koerner, a contributing editor for Wired magazine. He wrote an article for atlantic.com, "Betting on Sports Mathematics for the Win." 800-989-8255. How are you betting on the Super Bowl? What went into your calculations? Email us: talk@npr.org.

And we'll start with Reese(ph), and Reese with us from Laramie in Wyoming.

REESE (Caller): Hello, Neal. I love the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

REESE: Long time listener.

CONAN: Thank you.

REESE: I wanted to tell you that for the Super Bowl what I've done is I've done a teaser, which is, of course, taking a parlay, but for the Super Bowl I only took the over/under and the spread. So I picked the Steelers to win, or to cover the spread, and also to go under the overall point total. And what happens with teaser is you only get one source of juice for the game, but both things have to happen and you get spotted six points. So the Steelers have to lose by less than nine for me and the score has to be under 51 in total.

CONAN: So all that complication, it's going to keep you riveted probably right until the final whistle.

REESE: Definitely makes it more interesting. I would also caution people not to bet on basketball.

CONAN: Why is that?

REESE: It's just - it can be very erratic game. For instance, last night the best team in the NBA lost by, I believe, 13 points. The Spurs lost to Trailblazer by 13. And it was kind of stunning. So sometimes you can think you have the most locked bet in the NBA and one guy comes out, has a great game, and you're stuck.

CONAN: Kapoof. Yeah, okay. Well, Reese, good luck.

REESE: Thanks very much. You guys have a great day.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And again, the over/under, which Reese mentioned, that's the total number of points scored by both teams. I'm not sure where the over/under line is on the Super Bowl. But it's generally somewhere around 40 points. Obviously, if the weather's bad, it's going to be harder to score and that line will go down. And Brendan Koerner, a lot of what happens in football depends on the weather.

Mr. KOERNER: Yes, it does. You know, it does. The thing also about professional football in particular is that it's such a heavily coached, heavily managed game, that so many games come down to maybe three or four plays that can go one way or the other. There's so much variability on those three or four plays.

Remember, it's a very funny-shaped ball as well. So when that thing hits the turf and the whole game rides and who recovers a fumble, it's really kind of a mug's game and I think anyone can predict what's going to happen.

CONAN: When you are betting against - with a bookmaker, the impression is you're betting against the house. When you're betting in horse racing, for example, it's para-mutual system, you literally know the odds. You're betting against everybody else who's betting that day, whether at off-tract betting or there at the tract itself. You can see exactly who - how much has been placed on every wager right there in front of you on the totalizer board.

Mr. KOERNER: It's tough though because the intelligence you gather from doing that is based on a lot of people who are not betting rationally. First of all, obviously, the track - a track (unintelligible) what my relative calls degenerate gamblers, that would be the more polite term is compulsive gambler. So these are people who are not really making rational decisions, and also people like myself. When I go to the track, I often bet based on - if I like the horse's name or the color of the horse, or things that really have nothing to do with actual performance. So the intelligence you get by observing your fellow betters going after the odds is not always that great.

CONAN: So you're not a studier of the daily racing form. You're not out there with the stopwatch at 6:00 in the morning getting the times of the workouts.

Mr. KOERNER: If I was, I might do much better at the track.

CONAN: It is a sport that rewards hard work. Baseball, though, as you suggest, if you have a feeling that, say, Cliff Lee, who's going to be pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies this year, might have a bad game against one team or another, well, the odds are going to be pretty good. You can make a lot of money.

Mr. KOERNER: That's exactly right. If you have a contrarian impulse, or better yet, some kind of information that Cliff Lee is going to have an off night due to whatever is going on in his personal life or some history he has with a certain hitter that's not really out there in open market of ideas, then yes, you can certainly clean up if the odds are tilted against tilted against the field.

CONAN: Yet football is a much bigger betting game than baseball. I mean, there's a lot more money wagered on football on any given Sunday than on - well, and certainly on the sport, just 16-game regular season, than on the whole baseball season put together.

Mr. KOERNER: I think the point spread is part of that. I think the point spread makes betting on football a lot more fun. It's just a lot easier to understand. I think once you wade in to odds - people don't want to deal with math in their free time. But points are very easy to understand.

CONAN: Math anxiety. You describe that in - well, you mention that in your piece. And the math anxiety as it applies to betting, explain.

Mr. KOERNER: Well, I think it's the same exacting that applies to investing. People don't want to deal with the math. That's why they go into mutual funds. That's why they go into index funds. It's professional traders, people with mathematical minds who really capitalize on these game, whether it would be securities trading or betting on sports.

CONAN: And so those people - you also argue you'd rather see them betting on sports than setting up programs that will commodify our mortgages. But nevertheless, they're all doing the same thing.

Mr. KOERNER: They're all working the angles. They all - the more you understand the rules, the more you can work the angles.

CONAN: We're talking with Brendan Koerner, a contributing editor for Wired magazine about the factors that go into Super Bowl bets. 800-989-8255. Who are you betting on and why? What are the factors that went into your calculations? And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming up to - which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's see if we get Jim on the line. Jim's calling us from Phoenix.

JIM (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JIM: Yes. Actually, I work for the house. And you know, we - how we determine how good a player would be, would be look - we see their average bet, the amount of their bet, how compulsive they are, their loss history or their win history. And we use that to determine how -what the house edge on this player is. And we (unintelligible) on that.

CONAN: You work for the house - you work for a casino, in other words.

JIM: That's correct.

CONAN: And do you work for the sports betting part of the casino?

JIM: There is no - sports betting is illegal.

CONAN: Except in Las Vegas.

JIM: That's correct. In Las Vegas and a few other places.

CONAN: Yeah, and a few other places. So you have a - you keep a book, as it were, on all of your regulars and know their tendencies. And if they get too good, in fact, you will ban them from the casino?

JIM: Actually, all the casinos do that. If you're a real smart businessman - actually, we do that based on your player's card. And we consistently look at your play and we comp(ph) you based on that.

CONAN: Well, and Jim, that's interesting information. Thanks very much for the phone call.

JIM: Indeed.

CONAN: And Brendan Koerner, a lot of gamblers say that is grossly unfair. If you - the better you get at it, they ban you.

Mr. KOERNER: They'll do that at tracks as well. My relative was actually banned from two tracks in his career. It does seem grossly unfair, but their supposition, they come and say, well, you must be doing - you're so good at this, you must be doing something illegal. And they don't really need to prove that in a court of law to ban you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. And let's go next to - this is Lou. And Lou is calling us from Philadelphia.

LOU (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: And I think...

LOU: I've been betting on the Super Bowls since I've been 18 years old. I'm in my mid-50s. First of all, that guy who's betting that over/under parlay should go to Gamblers Anonymous, because that's the world's stupidest bet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LOU: Second of all, I'm betting the Steelers. I think the points - I think it's an even a game and I think the points are worth it. If the Packers were favored - if the Steelers were favored by two and a half, I'd bet the Packers. I don't think there's a whit of difference between both teams.

CONAN: So being from Philadelphia, you're not rooting for either side.

LOU: No. No. But I'm glad to see two old-time franchises playing. I mean, I hate to see - I hate these, you know, these new - I never bet I never root for a team that moves, like the Colts. And I always like the old-time teams.

CONAN: And Lou, is this going to be a mortgage-sized bet or just a $50 (unintelligible).

LOU: No. No. I've been betting - I bet 50 to 100 a game, you know?

CONAN: All right.

LOU: Three, four games a week, you know? And you can bet basketball, but you got to bet college basketball. Pro basketball, guys can close up 18 points in a minute and a half.

CONAN: Brendan, thanks very much. And it's interesting - the size of the bet is significant. People say unless you're a professional gambler, do not bet more than you can afford to lose, perhaps even if you are a professional gambler. And the point on college basketball, there have been any number of point shaving scandals over the years, where based on that point spread system, teams going back to, I guess, CCNY in 1951, the players say, well, we're not going to lose, we're just going to win by a little less than the point spread.

Mr. KOERNER: Yeah, that's right. There was a big scandal in the '80s at of Tulane, I remember very well. And also the figure in "Goodfellas," the real-life figure Henry Hill, organized a point-shaving scandal with Boston College in the '70s as well. so it has happened from time to time, certainly.

CONAN: Let's go next to Robert, Robert with us from St. Louis.

ROBERT (Caller): Yeah. I have a comment and also a question. Question is, how do you determine - or where can you go to see how a team does against the line? Year in and year out - whether it be the Lions or the Packers or whoever.

CONAN: Oh, there's any number of websites that would cover that, right, Brendan Koerner?

Mr. KOERNER: Oh yeah. Just Google that, it'll come up right away.

ROBERT: Okay. And then my other comment is, I personally believe that football is fixed, not on a game that's 50-50, but where the money is more lopsided, more like 70-30. And I think those games do occur, and I do believe personally that the refs have hand in this. Because I believe there's a holding - defensive, offensive - on every single play.

CONAN: I'm not saying, Brendan Koerner, that this is - thanks very much for the call, Robert. And good luck on Sunday. This is a pervasive belief among some, but very, very difficult to prove.

Mr. KOERNER: Very difficult to prove. I think there have been some kind of freakonomics-style attempts to show aggregate, you know, aggregate results and show how (unintelligible) decisions maybe evidence of match fixing. I don't see the incentive for the NFL. Imagine if that was discovered. It would just ruin the entire league. There's too much money riding on keeping the game as fair as possible for them.

CONAN: Well, just a couple of years ago, a professional referee in the NBA confessed to providing information to gamblers.

Mr. KOERNER: Yeah. And I think that - I mean, as I understand it, they went back and looked for any evidence of him fixing matches so he could benefit. As I believe, that there was not any evidence shown that he had fixed games to his own benefit.

CONAN: And there are very, very few games where 70 percent of the money ends up on one side of the ledger and 30 percent on the other.

Mr. KOERNER: Well, that would be a tip-off right there.

CONAN: That would be a tip-off right there. And in fact, there's been, interestingly in professional tennis, people who resign the match halfway through the match, and interesting look at some of the gambling money that's in on those contests too.

Mr. KOERNER: That's right. There's a match involving a Russian player a few years back where he resigned - he was a heavy favorite. And I believe he actually was later banned for a time.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Sue(ph) in Earlysville, Pennsylvania: Sorry, guys, mathematics be damned. My father, a lifetime Packers fan, will be watching the game. Ergo the Packers will lose by a heartbreaking margin. It's just the way it is. Time to face it. So...

Mr. KOERNER: Never let emotions get in gambling.

CONAN: Brandon Koerner, thanks very much for your time. Who are you betting on on Sunday, by the way?

Mr. KOERNER: Packers. I'm taking the over.

CONAN: Brandon Koerner's article, "Betting on Sports: Mathematics for the Win," ran on atlantic.com. There's a link to it on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from our bureau in New York.

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