Chris Liss from Rotowire interviewed me for their football annual magainze. It was great to get enough space to really dig into some advanced concepts. Rotowire.com provides great content for fantasy players.
CHRIS LISS (CL): Tell us a little bit about your background - how did you get into sports betting, how did you know you were good at it, do you have a background in math, poker, finance, something else?
R.J. Bell (RJB): I grew up in a small coal-mining town in Ohio - about one hour from Pittsburgh. Less than 30 miles away was Steubenville, the hometown of Jimmy the Greek. Football "spot-sheets" (called parlay cards these days in Vegas) were everywhere - and I clearly remember being 14 years old and betting my first one: $20 to win $200 on a four-teamer (ties lose!). I won and was paid off with a bank envelope containing 10 twenty-dollar bills. Each week I bet one $20 four-teamer after that - till the envelope was empty.
Later in high school I discovered public sources of "expert" information and started laying 11-10 on single bets and started making money. The lines were much softer in the late '80s, and before long I was betting upwards of $300 per game! Unfortunately, I started going to the dog track multiple-times a week, and no matter how I handicapped the dogs, I could not win. It took a few stats classes to understand the track's 20 percent hold percentage was almost impossible to beat.
In between races, I was mentored by a guy in his mid-30s, who was sloppy and unshaven, but could accurately multiple two four-digit numbers in his head - and yet had to borrow money from me to make his rent. I went to college at Ohio State, majoring in finance. My sports bets moved into the $500 range during those years. I graduated Summa Cum Laude (my mom was very proud), got accepted at a number of Ivy League law schools, but decided to continue betting sports and playing poker instead (my mom was not so proud). I figured many people knew more finance than me, and I figured many people knew more sports betting than me - but not many knew more about both - so I moved to Las Vegas. My main motivation for moving to that "city in the desert" was to find and learn from the most successful handicappers. I played poker exclusively at the Mirage (the biggest room in town before the Bellagio opened) and hung around the Stardust sportsbook (the source of the World Opener on most games at that time). From the many guys I met, I learned not only what to do, but - perhaps more importantly - what not to do.
CL: How often do you bet (and if you're willing to say - at what stakes)? What is your track record? What are some of the best successes/honors you've accrued as a handicapper?
RJB: I've bet nearly every day for the last 25 years - these days typically $500 (nickel) to $1,000 (dime) per game. It's perhaps surprising I'm not betting much more per game than I did in high school. Mostly that's because of how much tougher the lines are today. Decades ago an ambitious bettor often had an information advantage over a local bookie (some locals would actually use the line from the newspaper, never changing the numbers to account for any moves). In today's wired world, only the biggest and most connected bettors possess information that the market does not - leaving a superior handicap of known information as the only source of an edge.
Widely available lines especially offer limited profit opportunity, but not so much to niche bets offered by one or a few sportsbooks, often at lower limits. The most common example of these types of bets are Super Bowl props - but niche bets are available year-round in Las Vegas. Since there is often no worldwide market for such bets, the bettor is faced with a much easier proposition: betting against the sportsbook's oddsmaker rather than the collective IQ of the entire market. Such bets have the potential to offer a much bigger edge, but the limits are often $1,000 or less. Another example of niche betting markets are World Openers - where once again you are betting against one sportsbook's opinions at lower limits. Many winning handicappers are losing gamblers because they crave bigger bets against widely available lines - disastrously overestimating their edge.
I no longer make my picks public. Being the face of Pregame.com puts me in a no-win situation - if I run good, people figure I should, and if I run cold (which is inevitable), some people get very upset. During football and basketball season I update a public-fading system thread in our forums - which is very popular and has been profitable over a number of years.
During my days as a public handicapper, I was a three-time Sports Monitor documented champion and was part of the team (led by my Pregame.com partner Johnny Detroit) that won the 2004 Hilton Supercontest (our team cashed for over $130K!).
CL: What's your sports-betting philosophy - specifically when it comes to picking NFL games against the spread?
RJB: The NFL is the only sport in which the public action is big enough to worry the bookmakers. In most sports the bookies worry pretty much exclusively about sharp action, but with pro football the public's action is big enough to matter. This offers a significant opportunity. With the public's misperceptions accounted for in the line, fading those misperceptions can offer value. The public's mistakes are almost always emotional: backing their favorite team, backing teams with marquee quarterbacks, backing a "sexy" offensive team, overacting to last week's results, overreacting to a team's slow or fast start to the season.
With only 16 regular season games, team motivation is less of a factor in the NFL than for other sports (though still a factor). Another consequence of the relatively small number of games is that statistically-driven handicappers are limited by having less data to consider. Although stats guys have the advantage of not needing to worry as much about accounting for strength of schedule (since variations between the pro teams are much less than with college sports). NFL injuries are often overvalued. Quite simply, the backup is also a professional. Mike Colbert, sportsbook director for Cantor Gaming, recently shared with me that fewer than 10 non-quarterbacks in the entire league are worth even a half-point by his rankings.
CL: What's a good percentage vs. the spread picking every game? What's a good record on best bets? If you were asked to pick a game ATS at random, what percentage would you put on getting it right? What percentage would you put on getting your best bet of the week right? Best bet of the year?
RJB: The bookie's dominant edge is requiring a bettor to lay $11 to win $10. If you think about it, the bettor is granted every other advantage (which games to bet, when to bet, how much to bet), and still over 95 percent of bettors lose because they cannot overcome the 11-10!
To break even laying 11-10, a bettor must win 52.38 percent of his bets. If a handicapper were forced to pick EVERY NFL game against the spread, break-even is about the best even a world-class handicapper could do in the long run. To win more than 50 percent, the betting market must be wrong - and it's simply not wrong more than occasionally.
Over the course of a single season, a handicapper could randomly do much better - but over many years, break-even is the best you could hope for if forced to bet every game.
The more selective an expert handicapper becomes, the higher percentage he can win. If he limited himself to a handful of games per year, the best handicappers could average a 60-percent win rate. The paradox of this approach is the handicapper would be passing on games with a 59-percent win expectation (games which are clearly profitable). Typically, a professional will bet all games he expects to win at least 55 percent of the time - allowing him to maximize his volume while staying confident that each game has a positive expected value. Although volume will vary, the average professional bettor will bet less than 50 NFL sides per season (with possible additional bets on totals, halftimes, and props).
CL: Do you look at individual matchups like WR vs. CB, LT vs. DE or do you believe most of that is priced into the line already? What isn't priced into the line, i.e., where can we find an edge?
RJB: Handicapping on-the-field matchups offers perhaps the greatest potential for game factors that are not accounted for in the line (as opposed to value created by misperceptions that are accounted for in the line). Quite simply, such match-up factors are not obvious to the causal fan. Anyone can look at the league rankings and know the Steelers had a great defense last season - and thus that fact is accounted for in the line. But only a minority of bettors could explain that Pittsburgh was closer to average against elite quarterbacks or against teams that spread them out and exposed the limited cover-ability of their inside linebackers. If a handicapper cannot only answer how good a team is, but also how good a team is against a specific other team - he has an edge because he has knowledge that is not widely possessed.
CL: It seems your site, pregame.com, does a great job of helping people understand how to make picks and improving their own handicapping skills generally. By contrast is it ever worth paying for individual picks? Are anyone's picks so good that you can pay for them in addition to the vig and still come out ahead?
RJB: Whether to buy or not buy any product ultimately comes down to cost vs. value. The fact is, most sports bettors lose - which means the right sort of help can make all the difference. At least half the battle is not game-specific, but rather general best practices such as: a) don't bet so much that inevitable losing streaks cause you to go broke; b) bet only games on which you have a strong opinion, not every game that's on TV; c) make the effort to get the best line on every game you bet - because each half-point matters more than most bettors understand. The first key factor when it comes to buying picks is the handicapper's true level of expertise. Determining how much a handicapper can help you win is more art than science. Trustworthy W/L records are vital, and free content is also key - allowing you to sample a handicapper's work. Another key factor is cost, i.e., is the difference the expert picks make worth the expense? The most important part of that equation is the amount bet on each game. A $50 bettor should never pay $25 for a pick, no matter how good the info is. (Incidentally, we offer great free and affordable paid content that meets these criteria at Pregame.com.)
CL: Do you use a mathematical algorithm to project relative team strength to create your own "true" lines? If not, do you ever consult other systems like Massey-Peabody, numberfire.com, Advanced Stats, or any other?
RJB: A line is "wrong" (i.e., offers value) if factors are incorrectly accounted for in it. The first step in making such an assessment is setting a baseline power ranking based upon widely available information. An effective way to set this baseline is by using a consensus of respected computer power rankings. Which ratings to include in your consensus is a personal choice - though I am a strong believer that more is better (diversifying the risk that one ranking is way off). If you would somewhat trust an individual power ranking source alone, the consensus of many of those trusted numbers should produce a superior power ranking.
Once a handicapper has a baseline, he can compare it to the current point spread. The difference between the consensus power ranking and the spread should be game factors other than the strength of the teams, e.g., motivation, travel, injuries, player matchups. Let's say the home team is one point better (based on power rankings) - so you would expect the home team to be favored by four points (adding three points for home field). But, let's say the game is Thursday night, and both teams played the prior Sunday. The home team would have a big situational travel advantage, and a handicapper would be right in thinking so - but what matters is whether that factor is accounted for in the spread (and your consensus power ranking allows you to see that). If the home team is favored by five points, (more than the power ranking projected), then the schedule factor is likely accounted for and thus offers no value. But, if the home team is only the expected four-point favorite, then the travel factor is seemingly not being accounted for. If you believe it's a genuine factor, then there is possible value on the home team.
Comparing the projected line (from power rankings) helps a handicapper to understand what factors are being accounted for in the line, and which are not - and considering that the main way to find value is to identify factors not accounted for in the line, this calculation is invaluable.
CL: As far as you know, what are the key numbers Vegas and the number-crunching sharps use to determine relative team strength? I've heard things like "play success rate" (based on down and distance), net yards per play and other efficiency metrics used. Are there others? Do you favor any in particular?
RJB: The deceptive element of most NFL stats is that they do not account for the pace of the game. For example, the most common offensive and defensive league rankings are based on raw yards. Basic common sense tells us a team's defense that gives up 300 yards in 50 plays is not as good as one giving up 300 yards in 70 plays. Many handicappers strongly emphasize per-play type statistics. At its core, football is about scoring. Thus, it would seem logical to emphasize points-based stats.
Complicating matters is that with only 16 regular season games, many handicappers consider the sample of points-based stats too small. For example, after eight games (half the season) the number of points scored or yielded can vary significantly based on only a handful of plays.
Perhaps most deceiving of all is the monster effect turnovers have in game outcomes. Handicappers believe turnovers (especially fumbles) are much more random than the public believes. Yet, nothing affects the outcome of games more than turnovers. I know of a number of successful NFL betting systems that bet on teams with negative turnover differentials, while betting against teams with positive ones. The logic of these systems is obvious: if turnovers are more random than thought, then the teams who suffer from a bad turnover streak are likely much better than their game results (and vice-versa).
CL: How does Vegas set the lines? Do most sportsbooks simply try to split the action (in terms of dollars on each side) and make a riskless profit from the vig? Or do some books take a position by posting a line they know will skew the action in the direction they like, i.e., that the public will jump on what they view is the wrong side.
RJB: Is the goal of the point spread to split the betting action (i.e., half the bets on each side) or split the game result (i.e., underdog wins half the time; favorite wins half the time). This is an age-old question, and the answer shines a spotlight on the differences between NFL betting and every other American sport. For basketball, baseball and college football, the sharp betting action so outweighs the public action, the bookmaker is able to split the betting action and the game result at the same time with the same spread. Because professional bettors are unbiased, creating a line that best splits the result in that case does the job of splitting the betting action, too. The public's action is relatively negligible and not taken into account.
In the NFL, on the other hand, the public action is too big to be ignored; and because the public is biased (toward, for example, favorites, marquee teams, and recent results), the spread that splits the betting action is often different than the spread that would split betting results. This public bias is accounted for in the line to varying degrees - creating the opportunity to find value for contrarian bettors.
CL: If Vegas thinks the true difference between two teams (based on their numbers) is seven points, but that the public will split the bets 50/50 if the line is 10, where would they typically set the line?
RJB: Anytime a sportsbook generates lopsided action, they're exposed to the risk of actually losing. In the short-term, a good streak by favorites combined with lopsided action has sportsbooks crying the blues. During a two-week period in October 2011, 16 of 17 college football teams in the AP Top 10 covered the spread. The sportsbooks got crushed.
Paradoxically, the more lopsided action a sportsbook can book (as long as the action does not win more than 52.4 percent of the time) the more profit is generated in the long run. Las Vegas sportsbooks for the most part are notorious for having a very low tolerance for losses, forcing their directors to do whatever it takes to minimize risk (which results in smaller long-term profits).
Well-financed online sportsbooks - with a longer view and greater confidence in the advantage of risking only $10 to win $11 - are more open to the trade-off of lopsided action.
For example, if the results splitting spread is seven, and the betting market splitting spread is 10, the actual spread will be often in the middle. This creates the best of both worlds for the sportsbook: at -8.5, the favorite will win less than 50 percent of the time, while the public will bet the favorite heavily because of the less-than-10 line's appeal. If a bet looks especially attractive, it likely means the sportsbook wants you to bet that way (aka, a "trap game").
CL: Do you look at what percentage of the public is on one side, e.g., 80 percent of bettors are on the seven-point favorite in a game. Do you tend to fade the public there, or ignore it?
RJB: Fading the public has become a widespread practice, discussed at great length on online message boards. At SportsbookSpy.com we actually provide the live bet distribution on every game. The logic of fading the public is that the public loses most of the time. What's not properly considered is that the public loses because it must bet $11 to win $10. On average the public will pick around 50 percent winners. You may recall that 52.4 percent winners are required to profit - while on the flip side picks must hit less than 47.6 percent of the time to be profitable by fading them. The public simply does not lose that much, so blind fading is not profitable.
That said, I rarely bet the same side as the public, not because of how often they win or lose, but rather the effect their support has on an NFL game. Bookmakers often move the spread in response to lopsided action (in an effort to even it out by making the less bet side more appealing). Thus, if you are betting on the same side as the public, after the public has bet, you are at the disadvantage of spreads moving in response to the public action (e.g., laying 4.5 on a heavily back favorite instead of the opening number of 4). By betting against the public action, you can often benefit from spread movement. This movement is not enough to fade the public blindly, but can often be a factor in deciding which of your handicapping leans to actually bet.
CL: Are there any teams that are habitually inflated by the public - like the Steelers or Patriots? Are there chronically undervalued teams? Is there usually value in home dogs, Sunday/Monday night home dogs, teams coming off blowouts, west coast teams heading east for an early game? Or is it all just case by case?
RJB: Typically the overall amount bet on a game is directly related to the fan interest in it. By the same token, typically the amount bet on a team is directly related to the size of its fan base. Popular NFL teams like the Steelers, Cowboys, Packers and Patriots have more fans, which leads to more bettors. Size of fan base is not the only factor; others include: how the team did last week, how it has done on the season, whether it has a marquee quarterback and whether it has a high-powered offense. The higher the public's interest in a game, the more these examples of public bias influence a game's point spread (also mattering more for Sunday and Monday night games, less for a game televised only regionally).
One quirky action factor is geography relative to Nevada. San Diego is the closest NFL team to Vegas, which results in many Charger fans in town during NFL weekends, which results in a unnaturally high percentage of SD bettors, which results in a premium charged for betting SD (i.e., the line is shaded that way), which results in value fading the Chargers. The same effect applies to Oakland and San Francisco for the sportsbooks located near Reno.
CL: Do you have any tips for money-line betting and survivor pools?
RJB: By far the most accurate publicly available predictor of NFL results is the NFL point spread. If anyone were consistently better, he could make a fortune betting the NFL, and we all know how rare that is. As early as May each year certain sportsbooks release lines on every NFL game throughout the season (we post these lines at Pregame.com). By using the spreads on the season's games, you know the odds of each team winning each game - which allows you to look ahead and know what weeks the best teams will be the most dominant - information that should have a very positive influence on your survivor-pool planning.
For those who don't want to put in the work of looking ahead, point spreads each week for next Sunday's games act as a simple guide for that week's picks (once again by quantifying the odds of each team winning its game).
CL: Tell us your best bad beat story. Also your biggest/most satisfying win.
RJB: My worst bad beat and most satisfying win were amazingly on the same game! As mentioned earlier, we put a team together in 2004 for the Hilton NFL SuperContest, which for a long time has been the most prestigious handicapping contest in the world, with first place typically cashing for more than $300,000. Entering the last weekend of the NFL season, our team was in the hunt for first place, and amazingly it all came down to the Sunday Night game (the last game of the season). We had the Cowboys +3 over the Giants, and a win would mean the outright Hilton championship.
The Cowboys were down five late in the fourth quarter. But then, with less than two minutes left, against the lack of luck every gambler sometimes feels, the Cowboys score a touchdown. The adrenaline of having hundreds of thousands of dollars swing on one play cannot be described. A transcendent rush that gets to the heart of gambling's appeal. After a successful two-point conversion, underdog Dallas was up three. The Giants QB was a rookie who had a 0-7 career record at the time (oh yeah, his name was Eli Manning). You know how this ends: with 16 seconds left, the Giants score, the extra point is good - NYG win 28-24, sending our Cowboys +3 pick down in flames. Instead of winning more than 300K, we tie for first and take home 130K. Truly the worst beat and biggest win both on a single game! As Michael Corleone said to his girlfriend Kay Adams after telling her about Luca Brasi: "That's a true story."
CL: Where can people find your work?
RJB: At Pregame.com - there's a ton of great content there from free picks and tutorials to reader forums and contests. Also, during the football season I do a weekly Friday segment on Colin Cowherd's radio show (judging how "sharp" his weekly NFL picks are), plus hundreds of other national media spots each year. You can keep up with me, including the first release of Vegas reporting, on Twitter: @RJinVegas