Sports bettors don’t help their chances of winning by knowing a game. As a former member of a professional gambling team, I’ve been saying it for years, but the blowhards at the poker table just wouldn’t listen. Now a new study in Psychopathology has proved that I’m right. Don’t you love it when that happens?
The research, performed by Tel Aviv University’s Pinhas Dannon and colleagues, was conducted on 165 people who were asked to bet on the outcome of football (that’s soccer to Americans) matches in the European Champions League. Fifty-three of the subjects were compulsive sports bettors, 34 were knowledgeable soccer fans who had never gambled before, and 78 were complete amateurs who had never followed soccer or bet on sports.
As you might expect from the fact that sports betting fans generally tend to borrow money a lot, then the experienced sports bettors didn’t win any more than the other two groups. But knowing the game didn’t help either. The two players who did the best came from the amateur group — and they did pretty lousy too, correctly picking only seven out of 16 winners. Ouch.
Dr. Dannon wanted to understand how the mind of a compulsive gambler might work, so that he can find better cures. He said that his study will help sports bettors recognize that they don’t enjoy the advantage that they think they do. Fair enough.
But the fact that knowing the game doesn’t help you win at sports betting isn’t really new information. The concept has been known to intelligent investors (as opposed to pathological compulsive gamblers) for years. In fact, investment classic A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton Malkiel, which more or less demonstrated the same thing as Dannon’s study for stocks, was first published in 1973.
Malkiel’s take-home conclusion was the infamous statement that “a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s financial pages could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts.”
OK, I can hear the objections from here. That’s an artificial result, perhaps caused by the fact that experts are deliberately handicapped. Professional stock analysts can’t use insider information that might actually help them get an edge. That’s illegal. They have to use the same information available to anyone else.
Can’t a sports bettor dig deeper and learn more to figure out who’s going to win? Sure, you can. But so is everybody else, including the sports book. You may know perfectly well who’s going to win, but it doesn’t do you much good when the sports book has already adjusted the line to make sure that you can’t profit over the long run by winning.
Even if you win more games than you lose, the books take too big a cut of winnings to allow you to make money. Over time, your bankroll vanishes unless you add new money — the opposite of good investing.
That’s why your brother-in-law who claims to be a professional sports bettor keeps borrowing money. And that’s why almost everyone who makes money betting sports is actually the owner or operator of a sports book.
However, I won’t be a complete party poop and crusher of your sports-betting dream. For many years, I’ve known a person who does operate professional sports-betting teams, and he makes money consistently enough that he has to keep hiring fresh faces to put down the bets for him. Otherwise, both Las Vegas and offshore internet betting books would refuse to accept his action.
He doesn’t win by knowing everything about every sport. Instead, he wins by knowing math. One technique is to seek out the rare sports bet where the book has wrongly calculated the line. As you might imagine, mistakes are rare and getting rarer. You might wait a long time these days to find an exploitable game.
That guy who knows everything and bets on every game? Says he’s a pro? That guy is soooo not a pro.
To win at sports betting, you need math, scouting skills, and a ton of patience. No soccer knowledge required.
[horse racing photo courtesy Wikipedia]