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So You’ve Decided To Ruin Your Life: A Beginners Guide To Sports Betting

Calling all degenerates! Welcome to the life of turmoil and fading glory.

Sports Betting at a Las Vegas Casino by Baishampayan Ghose is under CC BY-SA 2.0

So You’ve Decided To Ruin Your Life: A Beginners Guide To Sports Betting

Estimated Reading Time: 6 Minutes

If you are like me, you wake up in the morning and think, ‘what else could I be doing to destroy my life and the lives of those around me?’  Or, maybe you are just thinking you could use another crippling vice to supplement the others. Better yet, you might just be incredibly delusional and believe this is your ticket out of whatever mess your existence currently is. Either way, I am here to help. So together, let us go down this rabbit hole of consequence into the glorious world that is sports betting.

The Most Basic B

As stated before, this is for beginners.  So let’s get basic. First, what sport do you love?  Make sure to pick one that you already have way too much of an emotional stake in.  For me, that is and always will be football. We can use that as a jumping off point going forward.  Just insert your preferred modality as you read. We will start as simple as possible, moneyline bets.  A moneyline bet is simply picking the team you think will win. So easy! Unfortunately, there is a little more to it than that. The first thing you will want to look at is the +/- for your particular choice.  For example, let’s say you are a big Steelers Stan and want to throw a couple shekels on the black and gold. This Sunday, they are playing that pointless meh that is the Cincinnati Bengals. For argument’s sake, we’ll say the Steelers are the massive favorite.  

The Scenario

Close your eyes. It’s week 9 and the Bengals are visiting Pittsburgh. The home team is currently 6-3 and the visitors 4-5. The line you see is Steelers -175. What does this mean? So glad you asked! Basically, this means if you bet $100 on the Steelers and they are victorious, you would win a cool $57ish.  Conversely, let’s say the Bengals were +175. This would mean a $100 bet would net you $175! Both of these, of course, do not include the original $100 wager coming back to you, only the profit, and this is how we will be doing it going forward. Do your own math. This is a very basic example but you can extrapolate your own bets to match the wager and line as it comes.  

The Most Common

Next, let’s get into what I see as the most fun and common way of betting. This is the bet that you will most often see referenced casually, be it on a podcast or TV. The point spread. We can use our same Steelers v Bengals example from before.  The line for something like this would be, let’s say, Steelers -6.5. What this means is that placing a bet on the Steelers can only be cashed if they win the game by 7 points or more.  It’s like a handicap in golf. They are the better team so you will need to give up points in order to win your bet.

So why would anyone do this when the moneyline exists? Great question. The answer, odds.  

Typically, you will see a point spread pay around -110 on either side. I know I said I would not be doing your math but one last time because math is hard. If you give the points on the Steelers a $100 bet would bring back $90.  A bit more than $57! You are just giving up the points to potentially win more money. This is the basic logic behind how point spreads work.

The Push, The Vig and Other Annoyances

There is also the occurrence where the line might be Steelers -6, this would mean to win your bet you would still need them to win by 7 or more points to cash your bet but if the number lands on 6 it’s a push.  No one wins. You just get back your initial bet and can try again. Some of my greatest wins have been pushes.

You may also be asking, why if I bet $100 do I not double my money when I win? That would be the dreaded vig. This is what the bookie or sportsbook will take as part of the cost of doing business. The goal of a good book is to take equal amounts of money on each side so that the outcome does not matter to them.  They pocket the vig and move on. This is why you will see lines move as a game approaches. This is the book trying to entice bettors to go one way or another because they are too exposed on one side.

Let It Fly

Now, these are the two simplest bets, but what does one do if you want to turn a small bet into a big pay day?  That would be a parlay. A parlay is when you bet multiple games, moneyline or spread or a combination of both, that all have to hit in order to get your payout.  You could do a 5 team parlay and hit 4 games, lose the last one and wind up with nothing. Have to hit them all. While the odds are against hitting multiple bets like this, it pays out a greater amount than a single bet of the same denomination.  Meaning, if you bet two individual point spread bets and hit them both at -110 each at $100 bets a piece, you would make $180 and be exposed to losing $200, but if you took those same two bets in a parlay and bet the same $100 a winner would pay around $265.  This all depends on the odds for each bet in your parlay but hopefully you get the gist of it.

The Rest of the Mess

This all works in a similar fashion with any sport your bookie or sportsbook will take action on.  It doesn’t matter if it’s football, baseball, basketball or hockey. The nomenclature might be slightly different, baseball is run line, but the idea remains the same.  You can also do first half bets, second half bets and even in game betting at some locations, but again, the underlying premise remains constant. I hope this gives you a nice base on how to lose some or all of your current disposable income. I would love for you to be sweating it out with me while playing catch up during my weekly Monday Night Football ‘get right game’ next year. Misery loves company and I am as miserable as they come.


You can find a good bet calculator here to play with if my ramblings and tenuous grasp of math (terrifying reminder that I work in finance) made little to no sense.  Play around with it a little and see what you can learn. Also, here is a link to a site that updates lines daily for everything you can think to bet on. Just click the Vegas Odds drop-down for whichever sport you want.

PS: If you felt like this was just 900 words of me condescendingly talking down to you, like some sort of child or Quaker, that’s because it was. Or you just knew all this and presumably have a gambling problem.

Josh grew up in the midwest and upon graduating from the University of Iowa he wanted to see the world. After 4 years in Jacksonville he decided he was cultured enough and moved on to Birmingham England (known to the locals as the Detroit of the UK) and then west to San Francisco before settling in NYC. He pays his bills working in finance making sure the 1% remains on top. When he is not selling his soul and unable to look himself in the mirror, he spends his time writing mean things about sports while his dog, Sweet Dee, silently judges from her spot on the couch. He is very biased and never wrong. He would also like to thank Rotowire for never changing their NBA League Pass and MLB.TV passwords from that year when he was an NBA Beat Writer for the Nuggets for some reason.

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