It’s March. The third month of the year. 31 days without a single federal holiday and we’re still waiting for Spring to arrive. Thankfully, there are two beloved sporting events that get us through the month: 1) the broken hopes and dreams of college basketball players that is March Madness and 2) Opening Day of Major League Baseball.

The first two days of March Madness are perhaps the greatest two days of the year for sports fans and I often wonder why they aren’t federal holidays. Work is put on pause, costing employers billions of dollars, so we can tune in to see if some kid named Ali Farokhmanesh of Northern Iowa can put the nail in the coffin against No. 1 Kansas.

This year is different, however. Sports betting was legalized in your state and betting the individual games is all the rage. You figure your bracket will probably go bust in the 2nd round so you decide to download a sportsbook app and see what all the fuss is about. You download an app and see the following:

Uhh…what? Your alma mater Virginia typically kicks the crap out of NC State. You want to bet on them, but you have no idea what anything on the screen means. Well you’ve come to the right place. Below we’re going to walk through the basic bet types offers on major sporting events.

The Money Line

Alright this one is pretty straightforward – betting on the money line is simply betting on which team wins the game. If the team you bet on wins the game, you win your bet!

You think to yourself “I like the sound of that. Virginia is the better team. I want to bet on them!” Well here’s the catch: everyone knows they’re better. As a result, you have to lay odds to bet on them. What does that mean? Do you see the “-250” under Money Line? That means to win $100 you have to bet $250. The minus sign signifies the amount of money you need to bet to win $100, while a plus sign signifies the amount of money you can win if you bet $100. For example, a $100 money line bet on NC State would win $205. This type of syntax is known as American Odds.[1]

The Point Spread

OK so let’s say you don’t like the idea of laying -250 but you still think that Virginia will beat NC State easily. Another option would be for you to bet the point spread. If you want to bet Virginia on the point spread, you can wager that Virginia will win by more than 5.5 points, represented by -5.5 in the first column.

For example, a game that ended with Virginia winning 66-60 would be a win, but a Virginia win 65-60 would be a loss.

To bet Virginia -5.5, you’d have to lay -110, meaning you’d have to wager $110 to win $100. Alternatively, a point spread bet on NC State would be +5.5 -110.

Total Points

Now let’s say you don’t have an opinion on the side of the game, but you feel strongly that this will be a slow, grind it out game with very little scoring. If you want to bet on the total combined points in the game, you can do that as well. In this case, the point total is set at 117 points. If you want to bet the under, the combined point total for both teams must fall below 117 points for you to win. With odds of -109, you must wager $109 to win $100. If the total points scored lands exactly on 117 points, such as a score of 60-57, the bet pushes and bets are refunded.

Exotic Bets

These days sports books offer a plethora of alternative bets. Everything from alternative points spreads, first half lines, player propositions and an infinite number of parlays and teasers. Heck, you can even bet on which team wins the coin toss on the NFL’s “Big Game”.

A quick word on prop bets before I turn to parlays and teasers. Pros: you might be able to find an edge more easily because they are generally the least scrutinized bet offered by the sportsbooks. Cons: high vig (we’ll define this later), low limits and consistently beating them is one of the easiest ways to piss off a sportsbook manager and get yourself limited.

Parlays

Alright here’s the thing about parlays: they often get a bad rap because they provide the biggest hold (defined later) for a sportsbook. In reality, parlays could be fair bets, but they are often misplayed by bettors. This is a topic for another day. For now, let me just explain what a parlay is.

A parlay is the combination of multiple bets that only wins if all bets win. Let’s give an example. Suppose you want to bet on Virginia -5.5/-110 and West Virginia -8.5/-110 (against Texas). You’re quite confident in each bet, so you want to bet them on a parlay. Therefore, you only win your bet if both teams cover the spread.

If Virginia covers the spread but West Virginia doesn’t? Loser.

If West Virginia cover the spread but Virginia doesn’t. Loser.

If neither Virginia nor West Virginia cover the spread? Obviously, another loser.

Now… if both teams cover the spread, you win. And for taking that incremental risk (1 of only 4 scenarios win) you get paid better odds. Imagine that! How much better odds?

Well that depends on the odds of each bet. With each of the two legs of the bet at -110, you can expect to get odds of +264 (+264.46 to be exact). [2]

Teasers

Ahh teasers. Ok here’s the thing: I will give you a brief definition of what a teaser is and a brief explanation why you will rarely (if ever) see us recommending teasers.

A teaser is effectively a parlay that you can make with better lines but worse odds. Both legs of the bet have to win, but you are given extra points for both games. For example, let’s assume you wanted to do a 4-point teaser on Virginia and West Virginia. [3] Rather than parlaying Virginia -5.5 with West Virginia -8.5, you are parlaying Virginia -1.5 with West Virginia -4.5. So your teams have to cover a smaller spread (which is easier to do) but you’re receiving worse odds in exchange. Odds for a two-team parlay may range from -110 to +110, generally.

I’ll save you the math, but generally teasers are pretty poor bets. To deliver value, you typically need to tease across key numbers [4] (such as 3 and 7 in the NFL). For a 6-point teaser (typical for the NFL) it requires the weekly slate to have multiple games with a spread of 1.5, 2, 2.5, -7.5, -8, -8.5. Even if there are multiple games on the slate which may seem appropriate for a tease, you need to be pretty confident in your estimate of push probabilities for each number. [5]

With NFL rule changes in recent years resulting in fewer extra point attempts, several key numbers have changed. As a result, teasers have become a more challenging bet for most. With so many betting options, we generally steer clear of teasers.


[1] Odds can also be listed in Decimal and Fractional notation, but we’re going to stick with American Odds for this series.

[2] This will be explained in detail later, but here is the calculation: 100 x (1 - (110/210)^2)/ (110/210)^2

[3] Many sportsbooks offer various types of teasers, but we will use a 4-point teaser as an example.

[4] Numbers with a high probability of the final score ending on that spread.

[5] Probability of a bet ending on a push for each particular spread.

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