A sports game guide for beginners


Sports gaming has grown in popularity since the Supreme Court overturned a federal ban in 2018, with the American Gaming Association estimating it grossed $53.03 billion in 2021, a 21.5% increase from to 2019, the last year with a non-pandemic sports calendar. While many fans jumped right in – or were familiar with sports gambling before it was legalized – others may be interested in making it a hobby but may not know where to start.

This explainer is for you, the novice sports player. Here is a list of sports game basics to help you on your way.

Where can I legally bet on sports in the United States?

Sports betting is operational in 31 states and the District of Columbia and has been legalized but is not yet operational in five other states (Maine, Ohio, Florida, Nebraska and Kansas).

Is there a difference between online sports betting and in-person betting?

The difference between betting at a physical bookmaker and betting on your mobile device or computer is minimal, especially since the same companies operate both. At a sportsbook, you’ll line up to place your bet – with a human cashier or at an automated kiosk – and pay in cash, receiving a paper ticket documenting your bet. With online betting, you can bet anywhere it’s legal and fund your account using a credit card or online money transfer.

Another difference: live betting – betting on a game after it has started – is much easier online.

What are the key terms to know?

Moneyline bet: The most basic bet, where you choose the winner of a match. The final score does not come into play – only who wins and who loses. If the team you choose wins, you win your bet.

This series will examine the impact of legalized gambling on sport, through media coverage, responsible journalism and tips for navigating this new landscape. Read more.

Point spread bet: A type of bet where you bet on a team to win by a certain number of points or lose by a certain number of points. For example, in Week 1 of the NFL season, the Washington Commanders are four-point favorites to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars. If you bet on Commanders, they must earn at least five points for your bet to pay off. If they win by three points or less or don’t win at all, you lose. Alternatively, anyone betting on the Jaguars would need them to win or lose by three points or less.

If the Commanders beat the Jaguars by exactly four points, everyone’s bets are refunded. This is called a push.

This is how the Commanders-Jaguars game appears on DraftKings sportsbook. Favorites are indicated by negative numbers. Outsiders are denoted by numbers preceded by a plus sign. (We will explain the numbers after -4/+4 next).

Juice: Juice comes into play on moneyline bets, point spread bets and over-under total bets, and it determines how much you will be paid out if your bet wins. It is indicated in the example above by the numbers -115 and -105 shown after the dot spreads.

In Moneyline bets, the favorite receives a negative number, while the underdog receives a positive number. In the case of the Commanders-Jaguars game, Washington is a -180 favorite to win the game. This means you need to wager $180 to win $100 if you choose the Commanders to win (or $18 to win $10, or $1.80 to win $1). Likewise, the Jaguars are +155 underdogs. This means that a $100 bet on Jacksonville to win will pay out $155 (or $10 to win $15.50, or $1 to win $1.55).

Multiples of 100 and 10 are the easiest to understand, but your bet can be any dollar amount you want. The possible payout will be calculated for you, regardless of the amount you bet.

In point betting, juice is awarded to each team to help sportsbooks secure their profits. Essentially, think of it as a tax on your bet. Typically, each side of a point spread bet is assigned odds of -110, although as we see here this is not always the case.

Another important thing to remember: in sports betting, you get your payout based on the odds while also getting your original bet is returned to you. So if you bet $105 on Washington to cover the four-point spread and it did, you would get $205 back (your original stake of $105 plus the $100 of your winning bet paid at odds of – 105).

Total: When betting on a total, also known as an over/under bet, you are betting that one or both teams will score more or less than the number allotted by sports betting. Usually, the total is listed after the point distribution with an “o” or “u” displayed in front of a number:

The total for the Commanders-Jaguars game is 43.5 points. If you bet the most, you think the teams will combine to score at least 44 points. If you bet less, you think the teams will combine to score 43 points or less.

There are many total bets you can make. You can bet on the combined points of the teams in a half or a quarter. You can also bet on each team’s total points.

Talk : A single bet involving two or more bets, with the payout increasing according to the number of bets (also called legs) involved. You can combine moneylines, point spreads, and totals in just about any combination. All bets in your bet must be winners for your bet to succeed.

For example, let’s say you want to play the Commanders moneyline at -180 with the Chiefs moneyline at -155, which means you think Washington and Kansas City will both win. A winning bet of $100 would return $155.56. Let’s say you want to grow the Commanders (-180), Chiefs (-155) and Cowboys (a +110 moneyline underdog). Because you added another leg to your bet, and an underdog to boot, a $100 winning bet would return $437.43.

As the Post’s Neil Greenberg noted, betting is generally not a good idea for players, especially novices.

Tease: A teaser is, in essence, a bet: you combine two or more bets into a single bet, and all legs must win for your bet to pay off. But in a teaser, you can “buy” points on the point spread or total – usually six points for football games and four points for basketball games.

Let’s go back to Week 1 of the NFL for our example. The Bills are one-point underdogs to the Rams, and the Patriots are 2.5-point underdogs to the Dolphins. In a teaser, you would add six points to the two point spreads and turn the Bills into seven-point underdogs with the Patriots as 8.5-point underdogs.

Sportsbooks usually charge around -120 juice on two-team teasers.

Like regular parlays, novice players can have trouble with NFL teasers, but there’s a way to be smart about them using optimal strategy.

Prop bet: A prop bet is, in most cases, a bet on a player’s performance. In football, this can mean a bet on how many yards a player will gain (usually separated by position as rushing, receiving, and passing) or a bet on whether a player will score a touchdown.

Futures bet: A futures bet is betting on a team to win a season title (league, conference or division) or to exceed or fall below a season win total as established by the bookmakers. You can also make futures bets on players to earn rewards given after the season or to reach certain statistical benchmarks. However, be aware that some states (such as Virginia) do not allow betting on “subjective trophies” such as a league MVP or the Heisman Trophy in college football, where the recipients are chosen by voters.

If you want to be a successful sports player, you need at least a rudimentary knowledge of sports statistics. Sites such as Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus are good NFL references (though you’ll need to subscribe to get their full offerings), while by Bill Connelly the stat breakdowns at ESPN are good for college football. For college basketball, sites run by Ken Pomeroy, Erik Haslam, and Bart Torvik offer a wide range of advanced stats. FanGraphs is a good reference for baseball, and MoneyPuck and Natural Stat Trick do the job for hockey.

Greenberg’s Fancy Stats column in The Post is also a good resource.

Any last advice for beginners?

Don’t pay someone to make picks for you, as scammers abound in the sports betting industry. Anyone who claims to have a winning system or an incredible game record is almost certainly exaggerating their prowess, at least, and at worst is outright lying. Think of it this way: if you had somehow found a way to beat the system, would you advertise?

With so many online sportsbooks available in many states, it also pays to shop around for the best odds for your bets.

Illustration by Lily LK for The Washington Post.

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