The very basics of sports betting

Sports gambling isn't the lifeblood of casinos anymore, like it was for many years, but it still generates a sizable bit of action. Most of that action comes from veteran gamblers, though, and almost none from novices. That's a shame, because there's no thrill quite like putting some money on a game then watching it. You'd be surprised how even a $20 wager can make a contest so very, very much more interesting to you.

If it's so much fun (and it is), why do so few first-time Vegas visitors take part in sports betting? The main reasons are these:

Very few casinos emphasize sports wagering. The sports book -- that's the name for the place where sports bets are taken and paid -- are often tucked away in the back of the casino and they are almost never promoted. There's much more money to be made for the house on table games and slot machines. If it weren't for the few occasions a year when sports betting becomes big business -- the Super Bowl and the NCAA basketball tournament, mostly -- some grisly old-timers feel the casinos would get rid of them altogether.

It seems intimidating to place a bet. Almost all casual sports fans are at least somewhat familiar with the concept of a point spread, but when they enter a sports book one of the first things they see is an enormous electronic board filled with all kinds of numbers. Or, worse, a dingy whiteboard covered in hard-to-read handwriting. Many a new gambler has looked at that giant toteboard and thought, "All I wanted to do was bet 20 bucks on the Cowboys. I have no idea what all those numbers mean." Then they take their money back to the more familiar setting of a blackjack table.

So let's forget about the toteboard for now -- we'll come back to it -- and just examine the basics of the actual bets.

First off, sports books offer bets on just about every sport there is, but the four main ones that Vegas casinos highlight are as follows:

  • Football
  • Basketball
  • Baseball
  • Hockey

Yes, you can still place a bet on tennis or golf or European soccer or NASCAR, even though those contests might not be listed on the board. In a case like that you'll have to ask the clerk if they're accepting wagers. Usually they are.

Knowing the basic bets

No matter the sport, there are three basic types of bets. They sometimes go by different names depending on the sport, but they're pretty much the same thing. The three basic bets are:


This is the pointspread bet that most of us are used to talking about. In football and basketball this is given as a certain number of points, denoted as a negative figure for the favorite and positive for the underdog. For instance, if Team A is listed at -7 and you bet on them, that means it's not enough for them simply to win the game. They must win by more than 7 points for your wager to be a winner. Even if they win the game, but only by 6 points, your bet would be a loser. Note that if they won by exactly 7 points you wouldn't lose. But you wouldn't win, either. That's called a Push and you simply get your money back.

In baseball the side is often called a "Run Line" and in hockey a "Puck Line." In both of those sports the standard line is spot the underdog 1 1/2 runs or goals. In other words, the Red Sox would have to beat the Yankees by at least 2 runs to make Boston bettors happy. Sometimes, in cases where the linesmakers think there's a real mismatch, the run or puck lines will be higher than 1 1/2, but that's not extremely common.


This is the bet most folks know as the Over/Under. Linesmakers estimate the total number of points, runs or goals both teams will combine to score, and you can wager that the actual total will be either higher or lower than their estimate.


This is the simplest bet of all. You simply wager on one team to beat the other. You don't care about margin of victory, you don't care how many total points are scored, all you care about is which team wins. So why not make this bet all the time instead of a Side or Total? Well, there's a catch, and it has to do with how much you have to wager in order to win a given amount. We'll look at this bet more closely later, but for now just remember that it's not as great a deal as you may think.

How betting works

This is what most new bettors overlook, and it's how the sports books makes all its money: You must wager slightly more than you are trying to win. The usual difference is 10 percent, meaning for every $10 you hope to win, you must wager $11. Now, if you win the bet your entire wager is returned to you plus your winnings (in this case a total of $21 returned to you), but the sports book has kept that extra little put up by a bettor on the opposite side. This is why linesmakers try so hard to make a line that will generate equal action on both sides. That way the house is guaranteed a profit.

That 10 percent extra charged by the house on bets is called the "juice" or the "vig." You'll sound like a pro if you use that little bit of jargon.

And Moneyline bets? There's no 10 percent juice here. The bets are weighted so that risk/reward ratio for you goes hand-in-hand with the linesmaker's opinion of how likely a team is win. If the teams are fairly evenly matched you might have to bet only $105 in order to win $100 (meaning a total of $205 would be returned to you). But if you want to bet on a heavy favorite, you might have to wager $400 in order to win a measly 100 bucks. On the other hand, if you bet on a heavy underdog you may have a potential win of $450 for every $100 you bet.

In general it's best to stick only to Sides and Totals in football and basketball. For new bettors Moneylines are more likely to be used only in baseball and hockey.

How to place your bet

Now it's time to look at that intimidating tote board, the huge one with numbers all over it. It looks confusing, but if you know what you're looking for it's a lot easier. For our example we'll use football, since that's the most heavily bet sport, but the same thing would go for any sport listed on the board.

Start by just finding the team you want to bet on

Let's say you want to bet on the Dallas Cowboys against the New York Giants. Scan the board until you find the Cowboys. To the left of the team name will be a number, usually three or four digits. It'll be listed under a column title Bet#. Remember this number -- most sports books have scraps of paper and pencil stubs available -- as this is what you'll use to identify the bet to the clerk.

Decide whether to bet Side, Total or Moneyline

To the right of the two teams you'll want to find two specific numbers. One will be a negative number, this is the pointspread. It'll be placed beside whichever team is the favorite. So if next to "Cowboys" it said -3, that would mean Dallas is a 3-point favorite. If the -3 were next to "Giants," then the Cowboys are 3-point underdogs.

The second number listed is the Total. Let's say it's listed at 44. You may decide to bet on either the Over or the Under.

There will also be a third number listed, and this will be different for both teams. This is the Moneyline. Always remember calculations are based on $100 as a base, and negative numbers mean you must bet more. So if the Cowboys have "-145" listed beside them, you would have to wager $145 in order to win $100 (or $72.50 to win $50, etc.). The Giants may be listed at +130, which means someone betting them on the Moneyline could win $130 on a $100 wager (or, for cheap bettors, $13 on a $10 wager).

Actually making the wager

Once you've decided on the team and the bet you wish to make, and you've got the Bet Number written down or remembered, head to the window and tell the clerk just what you want to do. A simple way is to first give the Bet Number, then the bet type, then the amount you wish to wager. (Although for Sides and Totals it's usually less confusing if you state the amount you wish to WIN, rather than the wager amount.)

For example, the Dallas Cowboys are Bet Number 189 and you want to be $20 (remember, that means wagering $22 in order to win $20) on the Side (they're 3-point favorites). Step to the window and say, "On Bet Number 189, I'd like the Cowboys -3 to win $20."

Or if want to bet the Over in that same game, you would say "On Bet Number 189, I'll take the Over 44 for $20."

The good thing is that sports books are rarely very busy. If you're confused, just step to the window and explain to the clerk the type of bet you'd like to make. They usually have time to help -- a lot of the time you'll be the only person even at the window.