Sports Gambling: the Mechanics, the Business, and the Law (Part 1)
Like any other red-blooded Angeleno, I’ve made weekend trips to Vegas on the regular, and have experienced just about everything Sin City has to offer. But when I moved out here for the summer, I admittedly had no idea what to expect living as a local. I knew I probably would not be partying on the Strip, eating at restaurants featuring Michelin-rated chefs, making friends at the craps table, or seeing every DJ on the ULTRA set list every night, but I wondered how much of what tourists have come to know as “the Vegas” leaks into everyday life for Vegas locals. It’s not the constant partying, or the open-container-friendly laws, or the top-rated restaurants that Las Vegans do on the daily, it’s picking winners at the sportsbook.
Sports gambling is sanctioned in Vegas, as every big casino has a decent sports and race book, where casino-goers can place their bets in front of dozens of giant screens and neon numbers. After living here for a few weeks, what I didn’t realize was that these sports gambling meccas are not built for tourists. While there are no professional sports teams in Las Vegas, locals follow sports just as closely for the betting aspect, and love to throw money on games like people everywhere else throw on lottery tickets and scratch-offs.
Of course, gambling on sports (other than horse-racing, which is legal everywhere you can find a racetrack, and online) is illegal in nearly every state, which makes the casual conversation about who made money on what game last night almost as strange as being in Amsterdam (and now Denver) for the first time. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m far from a sports betting prude. At a very basic level, predicting upsets and knowing the odds is part and parcel to being a hardcore sports fan. Nearly everyone has picked a horse for the Kentucky Derby, taken a Super Bowl square, or filled out an NCAA March Madness bracket once in their life. More involved fans look at spreads, lines, and odds for any sport and any game you would like to take a flyer on.
Because of the local zeal for the activity in my new (temporary) home, I think now would be a good opportunity to explain how sports gambling works for anyone looking to throw some money on their favorite team, or anyone who just wants to know what the heck all the numbers mean.
“The odds” refer to the amount to be won against the amount needed to be staked (bet) to win the amount. Let’s take two completely arbitrary and random examples: the New York Yankees are 20/1 to win the 2014 World Series and the New York Giants are 40/1 to win the 2015 Super Bowl. This means that if you bet $1 each on both those two fine and upstanding squads, and they somehow won, you would win $20 and $40, respectively (and miraculously). Essentially, this is third-grade fractions. A more relevant example is California Chrome, who was 4/5 odds when he posted for the Belmont Stakes this past Saturday. At 4/5, you would have needed to bet $5 to win $4, making him the clear favorite.
Still with me? Good, because this next part is important.
While most horse racing odds and what are known as “futures” (i.e. who will win the 2015 Super Bowl) are measured in fractions, some odds are measured in smaller numbers. Let’s take another completely random example: Group G of the World Cup. Germany is listed as the favorite to win the group at “-150”, while the USA is the underdog (with Ghana) and is listed at “+900” to win the group. Portugal is listed at “+250.” These are the basic kind of numbers for all odds in sports betting. So what do they mean? If you were to bet on Germany at -150, you would have to bet $150 to win $100 (which, of course for you math heads out there, can be reduced to a 2/3 fraction – similar to our friend California Chrome). On the other hand, if you were to bet on the USA at +900, you would have to bet $100 to win $900 (or 9/1).
These -/+ type lines generally constitute the majority of the odds at any sportsbook and one anything you’re likely to bet on, so it is important to keep this in mind going forward.
The “moneyline” is the simplest form of a bet on any given game. Let’s say you wanted to bet on Game 3 of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals. If you bet on the moneyline, you’d essentially just pick the winner. For example, say you had a conversation with me prior to Game 3, and I told you that the New York Rangers were going to come back strong in Game 3, that Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick had never played in Madison Square Garden, and that the Rangers knew it was a must-win game – you could have marched into the sportsbook, bet on the Rangers to win at -165 (i.e. bet $165 to win $100), and lost all your money. If you were smart, you would’ve bet on the Kings at +145 (i.e. bet $100 to win $145). And just like that, you know what a moneyline is.
“What’s the spread?” is a far more common question to ask during football season. Linemakers at sportsbooks agonize (probably) what to set “the line” at for every football game and basketball game. Spreads are usually presented in a singe or double digit number set to a half point – like -4.5/+4.5, whereas moneylines are presented in their odds value form, as in -165/+145.
As with all sports odds, lines are set to draw equal action on both sides. So when Vegas sets the San Antonio Spurs/Miami Heat Game 3 line at Heat -4.5, this is done so that an equal (or close to it) number of people will bet on both the Heat to win by 5 or more as will bet on the Spurs to lose by 4 or less or win. Lines are typically set to a half point to prevent a tie (known as a “push”), as in, if the line was at 4 and the Heat won by 4, everyone would get their money back. Most spreads carry odds of -110 for either side (i.e. bet $110 to win $100). This is known as “the vig”, and is how the sportsbooks make money.
Let’s walk through an example: if I bet $110 on the Heat and you bet $110 on the Spurs, and the Heat “cover” and win 99 to 94, I win my $110 along with my original $110 bet back (total $210), leaving $10 for the sportsbook as a commission, so to speak.
The Over/Under is really simple. Let’s use the Heat/Spurs Game 3 as an example again. The Over/Under line is set at 198, and bettors can take the “over” or the “under” at -110 odds for either. So, let’s say you bet $110 to win $100 on the “under” and the score at the end of the game is 105-103 (Total of 208), you would lose on your bet. Note that this bet can also “push” (i.e. if the final score is 100-98). Over/Unders are used in total scores, total runs, season long win totals, and practically everything you can think of that has 1 total number on it.
The funny thing about sports is that it is completely unpredictable – much like a roulette wheel. While betting on sports is not necessary to enjoy them by any means, looking at the odds does give an interesting perspective on whom the linemakers think will win or do well in any given game or season. As stated, gambling on sports is not legal in most states, but if you find yourself in Vegas, take a break from the blackjack table to scout out the sportsbook, it’s quite the spectacle and a good way to meet locals, apparently.
 I’m drawing these odds from bovada.lv. You can find slightly varying odds in every casino and every online gambling book, but these are pretty much average.
 The Seattle Seahawks are the Super Bowl favorites at 6/1 and San Francisco Giants are the World Series favorites also at 6/1, as of this writing.
 While you were marching into the sportsbook to give them your money, Quick marched straight into MSG for the first time in his life – in a Stanley Cup freaking Final – made 32 saves, and marched out with a 3-0 shutout win. If you think sports are predictable, I have a bridge to sell you, but you probably can’t afford it because I told you to bet on the Rangers tonight. Moron.
 Naturally, “the public” (i.e. average Joes like you and me) will lean to one side (see: Cowboys, Dallas) while “the sharps” (i.e. the people who bet on sports for a living) will lean to the correct side. A typical line proceeds as follows: Peyton Manning is awesome, no chance the Broncos lose in the Super Bowl – the public bets the Broncos repeatedly until the Seahawks are a decent-sized underdog – then the sharps come in and bet on Seattle. The sportsbooks make all the money from the public betting on the Denver, and the sharps make money betting on Seattle after the public (stupidly) raises the value of the bet by betting against them.
Picture by: Baishampayan Ghos – G0SUB at http://flickr.com/photos/70016893@N00/5186138071