Betting on football games; whether it's through a local bookie, an offshore Internet site or a Nevada casino (still the only legal place in America to make football bets), most of us have done it or know of someone who has.
Newspapers and popular sports sites routinely publish the lines or point spreads for games, and football insiders offer their picks to viewers each week on ESPN and other cable networks.
Even Hollywood is not immune - think Two for the Money with Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey.
So, how much are we gambling each football season?
Although exact figures are impossible to calculate, according to Jimmy Vaccaro, widely considered to be Las Vegas' most influential bookmaker, Americans probably wager more than $50 billion a year on NFL and college football combined.
And where does all that money go?
Certainly not back into the pockets of the average bettor. He loses year after year, according to Dan Gordon, a top football handicapper and author of How to Beat the Sports Books (Cardoza Publishing 2005).
"In an average season, fewer than one bettor in twelve turns a profit," Gordon says. "Over the course of several seasons, the percentage of bettors who turn a profit is minuscule."
Michael Konik, a sports writer and best-selling author of The Smart Money (Simon & Schuster 2006), explains why it is so hard for the recreational gambler to win at betting on football.
"The standard bet requires gamblers to lay $11 for every $10 they want to win with the extra $1 or 10 percent known as the juice," Konik says. "Common wisdom says that over the course of a long football season the average man or woman will pick approximately 50 percent winners. Thanks to the juice, the only one who profits in this scenario is the bookmaker. In fact, sports bettors must pick 52.4 percent winners just to break even."
But even though the math says it's virtually impossible to win on a consistent basis, Americans continue to bet on football. And why not? We have unconditional love for the sport and betting $50 or $100 on a game adds an extra rush of adrenaline. Also, being "in action" can make a dull late-afternoon game (Buffalo vs. Oakland comes to mind) seem like the Super Bowl.
But that doesn't mean you have to bet like a "square" and throw away your hard-earned money.
"A square is the average, unsophisticated gambler whose decision making is based on hunches, media manipulation, or spurious systems that cannot overcome the bookmaker's inherent mathematical advantage," Konik explains. "Thus, the bookies love and cherish the squares."
However, Konik adds that there are some bettors who actually know how to beat the bookies.
"The bookies fear and despise a tiny coterie of professional bettors known as 'the sharps,'" Konik says. "The sharps are usually members of a betting syndicate privy to the most up-to-date information on injuries, weather, game plans, and, most important, the real power of the teams involved. They use powerful computers that can process millions of bits of data and produce a more accurate point-spread line than the bookmakers."
Another difference between squares and sharps is how they approach betting on game day.
"A sharp or smart has a plan of what he wants to do," says Vaccaro, the director of sports operations and public relations at Lucky's Race and Sports Book in Las Vegas. "He is not jaded by teams and does not bet with his heart. If North Texas is his best bet on a Saturday then that is his bet. He is not taken in by being involved in USC-Notre Dame just because it is the biggest watched game of the day. The payout is just the same as far as he is concerned.
"A square or recreational player might have a vague plan, but after two Corona's he will definitely run to the window and make a hasty decision on the USC-Notre Dame game because he wants to be involved in the party atmosphere," Vaccaro says.
So, is it possible for the average square to become a little sharper in making football bets this season? According to professionals like Vacarro, Konik and Gordon, amateur bettors have the best chance to win if they demonstrate a little patience and follow the 10 basic tips below.
1. Money Management - "This is without a doubt the most important aspect of betting on sports and possibly the most neglected," says Morey "Doc" Moseman, a professional gambler and sports consultant with DocSports.com for nearly 40 years. "The key to proper money management is to be sure not to bet more than you can afford to lose."
So, how much should you bet a game?
"Most people with an understanding of football gambling bet between 3 percent and 5 percent of their bankroll, increasing when they win and reducing when they lose," Vaccaro says. "For example, if you have a $1,000 bankroll for the season, you should generally bet no more than $50 a game."
2. Shop For Numbers - "Another important aspect of betting on football is shopping for the best number," Moseman explains. "There will be more discrepancy in the numbers at different sports books. The NFL, for example, will have very similar numbers at most of the betting shops you visit. On college you will be able to find different lines at different sports books. These books change their numbers according to the betting patterns of their customers, so it is not entirely uncommon to find two or three point differences in the lines."
3. Consider Underdogs - "In the long-run, it's easier to win betting on the underdog," Konik says. "Most people prefer to bet on the 'better' team, the one that will probably win the game. So underdogs tend to be slightly undervalued - except by the sharps."
Moseman agrees and especially likes home underdogs.
"There is probably no better bet in sports than playing an underdog at home," Moseman says. "Teams play inspired ball at home. Slim underdogs regularly win outright. Big underdogs often find ways to cover the spread and they rarely give up toward the end of a game in front of the home crowd."
4. Locks Don't Exist - "Anyone who has watched sports for about a month realizes that the difference between winning and losing, especially against the spread, can be infinitesimally small," Gordon says. "In the NFL, a game will often be totally turned around by one or two plays, or even a single penalty. There are almost an infinite number of scenarios that can happen in a single football game. The only locks that exist are those that need keys to open them."
5. Bet at the Right Time - "The sharp bettors tend to bet underdogs, and they tend to bet them early," Moseman says. "Squares usually bet later in the week and they tend to pick the favorites. If you like an underdog, it is best to get your bet in as late as possible, where there is heavy action from squares on favorites. If you are going to go with a favorite, it is best to place your bet early in the week when the sharps are laying heavy money on the points. Not all games work according to this formula, but it is usually a good rule of thumb."
6. Avoid Chasing Bets - "Don't do it! There is no worse way to mismanage your bankroll than to chase your bets after a losing day," cautions Moseman on the dangerous practice of trying to immediately win back your losses.
Ted Sevransky, a well-known Las Vegas gambler and sports consultant with Sportsmemo.com, agrees.
"The biggest mistake that amateur bettors make is they increase their bets when they are losing," Sevransky says. "When you're in a good rhythm and winning, you want to increase your bets. But, when you're struggling, that's when you want to reduce your bet size until you get out of your slump. Chasing losses is the fastest way to the poor house."
7. Avoid Exotic Bets - "For very skilled handicappers, with a proven track record, there can, at least in theory, be value in betting parlays," says Gordon on the type of bet that combines two or more individual wagers. "As for me, the best bet in football is betting the point spread or over/under totals on individual games. Giving 11 to 10 odds is almost always the cheapest price you can give."
8. Focus on Conferences - "The best way to win money betting football is to develop a niche and follow it closely," Moseman advises. "If you become an expert on a smaller conference like the WAC, you have a good chance to beat the house because sports book operators do not have the time or resources to follow this conference the way you can. There is a wealth of information on the Internet; it is just up to you to find it and research it daily."
9. Research Football Services - "Most sports services realize that most people who sign up with them are insecure," Gordon warns. "In trying to bamboozle potential customers, many services make claims about having scouts all over the country that give them inside information and promise 70 or even 80 percent winners, as if the bookmakers were the biggest suckers in the world. The only touts bettors should consider are the ones who talk about the long haul and realistic winning percentages, which are in the upper 50 percent to lower 60 percent range."
Also, it's probably a good idea to disregard advice from the myriad of ex-players and football experts you see on television each week.
"The talking heads on TV know nothing about sports betting," says Sevransky. "If you listen to their advice, you are sure to lose. If you want advice about sports betting, find someone who has a successful track record. Otherwise, you're better off doing your own research."
10. Drinking and Gambling Don't Mix - "There is a reason the casinos in Las Vegas supply you with free drinks while you are gambling," Moseman says. "Because alcohol clouds your judgment and usually helps you to make rash decisions you usually wouldn't otherwise make. To be a successful sports bettor you need to operate with a clear mind."
While these tips don't guarantee you're going to win, hopefully they can make you a little less square and a little more sharp in your picks this season.
And remember, in the immortal words of "Fast" Eddie Felson, "Money won is twice as sweet as money earned."