The Odds Must Be Crazy: Part 1

Man Surprised by Crazy Odds
In the cult classic The Gods Must Be Crazy, an unwitting bush pilot throws an empty Coca-Cola bottle into the heart of African tribal country. The natives there live in a utopian state without laws, money, or want. They find the Coke bottle, and consider it yet another blessing from the heavens.

Except the Coke bottle disrupts the tribe’s peaceful existence. Even the elders have never seen anything like it before, and it makes everyone’s chores easier. Since there are a lot of chores and only one Coke bottle, disputes begin to crop up, and a boy uses the glass as a weapon to strike another child.

Things are getting out of hand, so the tribal leader decides to throw the Coke bottle off the end of the Earth, and you’ve probably heard of that part even if you’ve never seen the movie.

How does a roaring comedy matinee from decades ago relate to Las Vegas in 2019? Simple. The legalization of gambling – and the recent watershed for online betting sites – are like very unfamiliar objects falling out of the sky, smack onto the heads of Sin City bookies.

Legalization is great. But life is more complicated for bookmakers now. Not only do Vegas and Atlantic City sportsbooks have to come up with more and more outlandish tactics to keep gamblers coming back to place old-fashioned bets at the window, the odds themselves are less of an exercise in gas-pump solidarity and more of a good old-fashioned price war.

Online sportsbooks compete to dangle funny, bizarre, and ever-tempting lines in front of customers. “Reduced Juice” betting sites and exchanges promise a fairer playing field to the gambler, and even the odds on the Super Bowl or the FIFA World Cup can vary sharply from book to book. Bookmakers can even outsource their odds-making duties so that literally any ‘capper from Colombia to Qatar can put personal opinions up on the open market.

And sometimes, the odds just look crazy.

When a Wager Requires a Sanity-Check First

The gaffes I’ve made in handicapping over the past few years include some real howlers. I failed to understand why the Army-Navy Game total was plunging downward prior to the academies meeting in December ’17, not realizing that as opposed to a snowy day in Philadelphia, it was going to be a really really really snowy day in Philadelphia.

As if to “one-up” (or one-down) myself the following summer, during the World Cup, I lined Ronaldo up with the “Red Fury” of Spain, briefly giving Portugal supporters an icy shiver.

Finally the coup de grace in 2019 – I was 100% fooled by the UEFA’s rules for deciding aggregate draws in 2-legged Champions League matches, and mentioned how the betting odds on Bayern-Liverpool looked a little funny. Thank goodness “won” our recommendation-pick on the match, even if winning didn’t salve my embarrassment all that much. At least I hadn’t cost gamblers dearly due to the stupid mistake.

But you know what? More often, when the betting odds look wrong, it’s because – guess what – they’re at least somewhat wrong. All of my finest handicaps and “confidence” picks that panned-out with winning outcomes over the same time-frame were characterized by one common thread – the experience of looking at the sportsbook’s line and thinking, “what?”

When it feels like the odds must be crazy, the bettor should run through a check-list of facts, basic analysis, and rules of the wager before putting money down on the right market. Think of it like finding a potentially-valuable old coin by the side of the road. A magnifying glass may reveal that it’s all an illusion…or give your jackpot-in-the-making a clean bill of health.

Figuring out that a mispriced line is really, truly the bookmaker’s mistake (or the betting public’s mistaken lean) and not your own bad math or sloppy analysis is one of the most exciting experiences in sports gambling. It means that a gift from the Vegas Gods may have fallen into your lap.

But if the pick turns out to be evil, there’s no throwing it off the end of the world.

The God's Must be Crazy Still

Asking the Basic Questions

If you start with the basics, you’ll catch yourself napping enough to save serious skrilla on bets you didn’t make.

Check to make sure you’ve got the venue correct. Internet statisticians differ on how to express host-advantage in different sports. English football matches, for instance, tend to be listed with the home club on top or on the left, while NFL scoreboards place the home team on the right.

Official home teams listed for neutral-venue exhibitions and early regular-season contests are also the bane of the rapid-fire “board” handicapper.

The advantage of a hometown crowd and a familiar environment is usually good for a nudge on the moneyline or the spread in most sports. But if the ‘capper looks at one of many FBS match-ups in Week 1 (or “Week Zero”) and sees a funky line on a pair of Pac-12 teams with an “@” between them, she should check to make sure that the kickoff isn’t in Boston or Florida before grabbing it.

Make teams on each side of a “mistaken” moneyline are equally motivated to pull out a victory. Perhaps a club has already qualified for the playoffs and has little left to play for?

For instance, dynamic KHL clubs like St. Petersburg raced out to division leads in 2018-19. But so many teams qualified for the postseason so easily that the final weeks of the season became “garbage time” in many Russian hockey cities.

The elites coasted to the finish line with reserve players taking serious minutes, while the league’s also-rans happily gobbled up wins and scoring stats.

Gamblers who only know the KHL casually were tempted into betting on favorites, especially when bonus spreads like “Avangard Omsk (+ ½)” began appearing at NHL betting sites. “Omsk has Cody Francon, he was awesome with Toronto! I’ll take that bet!”

Yeah…and Francon will take a breather against some Latvian club, and you lose the bet ATS, because elite teams tend to dial it back whenever all is well and the postseason is lurking.

Double-check a handicap against any basic factor you can think of, including injuries, weather, and rivalry fervor. That goes for garden-variety picks in addition to ante-up wagers on badly mistaken lines.

Origins of Mispriced Lines

Weird odds can come about in all sorts of ways. It helps to gamble on them successfully if you’re aware of the various reasons they come about.

Due to the competition for clicks and online betting action, occasionally a new sportsbook will offer a “crazy” line straight out of the Coke-bottle fable. For instance, an upstart site recently priced the Boston Red Sox at (+106) to beat the visiting Baltimore Orioles on Friday, April 12th. The Red Sox are an annual World Series contender. The Orioles are expected to be hapless yet again.

By the time you’re reading this, you’ll likely be able to know what the final score was. That doesn’t matter. Boston is simply not a plus-moneyline pick to beat Baltimore under any kind of normal circumstances. Las Vegas consensus gives the Orioles less than 2-to-1 chances against Boston, and the (+106) line stands out like a sore thumb.

Why would they offer the obvious favorites on a “+” moneyline? Consider that online sportsbooks don’t necessarily want or need new clients to lose, at least not right away. Betting sites are pleased when they beat household handicappers over the long term. But don’t overlook the psychology of marketing – if the newbie gambler wins a few times when starting out, he’s more likely to get hooked on the action.

In fact, scoring a nice win just after opening a brand-new account can put the bettor in a dangerous state of mind. Maybe they won $106 on the Boston Red Sox, and it felt easy. But the next prediction of chances-vs-odds doesn’t feel so easy, nor the next one after that.

Soon the client is trying desperately to hold onto those first-blush winnings while the weight of the “vig” is pulling the stake down. It can feel a little bit like:

The betting public is responsible for another sub-set of mispriced odds and faulty point spreads. Casual gamblers like to cheer for points in any sport, and tend to wager the “Over” too often, leading to the time-honored shark’s tactic of looking for “Under” total-points lines.

Prior to the Super Bowl in February 2019, the public went hard for the New England Patriots to beat the Los Angeles Rams, or at least to cover the spread. L.A. had actually opened as a favorite according to some bookmakers. Sites such as BetOnline called a manual halt to the line movement toward Bill Belichick’s Pats, but maybe they shouldn’t have. New England won the game handily.

Finally, “fake news” can be responsible for a lot of mispriced Vegas lines. You’d think bookies and high-rollers would learn that lesson when it keeps coming into play right in Sin City itself.

The Las Vegas Bowl has become a gold mine for underdog moneyline gamblers who tout the Mountain West. In 2017 the Oregon Ducks were all-but-anointed champions of the event by the media before being embarrassed by Boise State, which won against a (+210) moneyline.

In 2018, some of the same house handicappers overvalued Arizona State thanks to Herman Edwards’ presence. But the Fresno State Bulldogs played! – to win! – the game! and prevailed 31-20.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 of The Odds Must be Crazy

Mistakes by bookmakers are just as common as line movement caused by a silly public.

But whether it’s the media causing a rush of action on an overrated favorite, or an odds manager who chooses the wrong time and place for a publicity stunt, mispriced lines are all over the web…if you know how to find them.

For Part 2, we’ll chart how mispriced betting odds can be sharply advantageous to the gambler in individual sports such as golf, tennis, and horse racing.

In the meantime, I’ll try to keep the chalkboard together.

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