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by Paul Wilson

BJI contributing writer Paul Wilson is a quasi-Renaissance man and graduate of Millsaps College. Some of his interests and hobbies include finance, consulting, travel, photography, and rock music. He's an avid baseball fan. Paul has done freelance writing and editing for gaming publications and takes blackjack, video poker, and sports betting very seriously. As we learned in the November issue, he also might have a "thing" for Wonder Woman.

With the college football season only hours away and the NFL opener a week later, I'm going to change it up a bit this month and talk about football, specifically football betting, Las Vegas style. If you're a visitor or Las Vegas local, we both know that you are going to want to make some football bets this season with your blackjack winnings when you are in town. However, do you really know what you are doing? There's a lot of information in the sports book and it can be rather daunting. I've been asked countless questions in sports books over the years by friends and strangers alike. I've also seen patrons really gum up the works for the rest of us because they didn't have a clue when they stepped up to the betting window.

In this month's Paul's Pointers, I'm going to educate you on how to not be "that guy" by giving you a better understanding of how things work in a Las Vegas sports books so you'll feel more comfortable, confident, and prepared when you are ready to place your bets. In the space below, I'll discuss how to read the board; types of wagers offered; how to place bets properly; and give you the scoop on where to watch the games.

What Do All Those Numbers Mean? (Or How to Read the Board)

When you walk into a sports book, you'll see a large display board (or multiple boards) with long lists of lots and lots of games, teams, and start times. Most of the boards in the Las Vegas books are electronic; some change their displays frequently; a few others are of the dry-erase variety. That's all window dressing. What matters is those numbers. Since we're talking football, we could go to a sports book right now and see "NFL Week 1" listed. Under that heading will be listed all the matchups with the date and start times for that week's NFL action. Each team on the board will have a number to the left of the team name. That number is called the rotation number. The rotation numbers are pretty much universal from sports book to sports book with few exceptions. The visiting team will be listed first or on top and have an odd number assigned to it; for example "487 New York Giants." The home team will be listed below with an even number assigned to it; for example "488 Dallas Cowboys."

To the right of the rotation numbers and teams pitted against one another, is the line or point spread. Sometimes the game total is listed above or below the line depending on which team is favored and in some places it is listed to the right of the line. The money line (M/L) is generally listed in the next column or to the right of the spread and total.

In sports betting, the favorite always has a minus sign in front of it; the underdog has the plus sign. In our 487/488 example above, Dallas might appear as -5.5 with a total of 50. This means the Cowboys are 5.5 point favorites and would have to win by 6 or more points if you bet on them for you to win that wager. In this example, the Giants could win the game outright, or lose by 5 points or less, and Giant bettors would win their bets. The total of 50 is just what you probably guessed; it's the combined total points scored by both teams. The money line is expressed in terms of what it takes to make $100 betting on the favorite or how much a $100 bet would return betting on the underdog. In our example, if the Cowboys are -240 and the Giants are +200 on the M/L, that means you would have to wager $240 to win $100 on the Cowboys to win; or a $100 wager on the Giants would return a profit of $200 should they prevail. Remember that M/L wagers do not involve point spreads; you are merely picking a winning side.

How Do We Make Money? (Or Types of Bets Offered)

Many of you are familiar with the concept of a point-spread (and we already discussed above how both point spread and money line wagers work). In this section we'll discuss straight bets, totals, parlays, and teasers.

A straight bet is simply a bet on one outcome. It can involve a point spread favorite or underdog; a money line favorite or underdog, or a total. Unless specifically priced otherwise, such as money line bets (remember our -240/+200 example), straight bets in college and professional football are priced at -110. That means you must wager $110 to make $100. In our example above, you could lay the 5.5 points with Dallas (the favorite) or take the 5.5 points with the Giants (the underdog) and the odds would be -110 either way. For large or smaller amounts, just add or subtract a zero. Wager $1,100 to make $1,000 or $11 to make $10 or anything in between such as $33 to make $30. It's still -110. Make sense?

This leads us to totals. You can wager on the combined over or under score of the two teams. Suppose you think the Giants/Cowboys tilt will be high scoring and you want to wager over the total of 50. If the final score is 51 points or more, you win. For example, a final score of 27-24 is a winner, as is 35-24. A final score of 27-21 would make your over the total bet a loser, but a winner for anyone that bet under 50. If the combined final score lands exactly on the number, this is a "push;" just like in blackjack you "win" your initial wager back. The same applies for ties when point spreads are involved. Like points spreads, totals are priced at -110 each way, over or under, unless specifically designated otherwise.

A parlay bet requires multiple selections. Parlay cards are very popular in Las Vegas sports books. They are normally available mid-week during football season and have fixed odds clearly designated on the card. The casino hold is very high on these pre-printed cards; meaning based on your probability of winning and what you are paid when you win, the sports book is making a tidy profit. The parlay cards will tell you how many games you need to select, but it's at least three on the point-spread cards.

When you make a parlay wager, you have to win all the selections to cash your wager. If you miss even one, the bet is a loser. In exchange, you are paid higher odds than -110 for a straight bet.

Parlays are popular because many gamblers want to wager a little to make a lot. Many people don't realize that you can make parlay wagers "off the board." That simply means that you make multiple selections from the lines and/or totals posted on the big board mentioned in our first section. Parlay odds in football are pretty standard, but on occasion there are books that deviate with higher odds to bring in more action, or they will lower payouts because ... they are greed heads and don't want your business, maybe? You tell me. Some standard parlay payouts are: two teams 13:5; three teams 6/1; four teams 10:1; and five teams 20:1. The number to the right represents $1 and the number to the left represents the winning parlay payout amount. For example, if you make a $10 bet on a three-team parlay and win, you'll be paid $60, plus your original wager amount (6:1). Don't be confused by sports books, especially on parlay cards, that advertise "10 for 1" which means you get $10 back; period. Think of it this way: 11 for 1 is the same as 10 to 1 (10:1). You can mix and match point spreads, totals, and money line selections when placing parlays. Just remember you have to win every selection to get paid. That's tougher than you might think when the whistle blows.

Teasers are similar to parlays in that you need at least two selections. Teasers allow the bettor to adjust, or "tease," the point spread or total up or down in any direction, but the price is a reduced payout/higher price. Common football teasers are 6-points, 6.5-points, and 7-points. These used to be priced consistently, but in recent years Las Vegas sports books have changed up and raised the odds or price on these bets. It's akin to paying 6:5 for blackjacks in some cases. You need to shop around to get the best price if you are going to make these bets consistently. For example, I use a lot of two-team 6-point teasers in the NFL. They've been -110 all my life until the past few seasons. Last year the best price I could find was -115. I know at least one place that charges -130 for this wager. Needless to say, I won't be making those bets with them.

Let me give a quick example of how a teaser bet works before we move on. Say I want to bet a three-team 6.5 point teaser in the NFL. This bet should be priced 3:2. I want to win $30 with this bet, so I'll bet $20 (3:2 odds, or +150). I'll pick three sides that I like, say, the Cowboys -5.5, the Packers -6.5, and the Falcons +1. Now add 6.5 points to each of those and we have the Cowboys +1, the Packers Pick, and the Falcons +7.5. The Cowboys and Packers need to just win and the Falcons need to stay within a touchdown for us to cash this bet. That's all there is to teasers; pretty simple stuff.

Say What? (Or How to Place Your Bets)

If you haven't figured out by now, sports betting has a language all its own. Now that you're hip to the lingo, let's talk about placing bets. It's very simple, but you can muck it up and the sports book ticket writer will get you through it and take your money. You might even get the bets you wanted to place this way. Or, you can follow my instructions below and get it right every time.

I recommend grabbing the rotation sheet when you first enter the sports book (usually stacked in a rack). They are printed for each sport. Be aware that the point spreads and totals printed on them were current when the sheet was printed. Always refer to the display board for the most current odds. My technique is to write down my bets on this sheet before I approach the ticket counter. I write down the rotation number, team, point spread or total points I want to wager, and how much I am betting/how much the bet will pay out if it wins. This helps me keep track of the amount of money I am wagering and I also know the numbers I want to wager and at what price. Point spreads, totals, and M/L prices change frequently - even when you are walking up to the betting counter! You don't want to lay 3.5 points when you meant to lay -3 on an NFL game. That's a big half-point!

Generally, you will wait in line until it's your turn to approach the ticket writer (i.e., the sports book employee that takes your bets). Start by stating what type of bet you are making: straight bet, parlay, or teaser. Then announce the rotation number and how much you want to win on a straight wager or how much you are wagering on a parlay. The ticket writer keys in your bet and a paper ticket will be printed. If your bet wins, this is what you will exchange for cash; if it loses, crumple and throw into the trash (or floor) in disgust. (TIP: Save your losing sports tickets for tax season to offset your wins if you regularly deal with 1099Gs.)

I'll list a few examples of how the betting process should flow. Let's make four wagers based on some of the information in our examples above. I'll bet the Cowboys -5.5, over the total of 50, a three-team parlay off the board, and a three-team 6.5 point teaser. Ready?

ME: "I'd like a straight bet 488 to make $50; a straight bet 487 over the total to make $40; a three-team parlay off the board: 463, 488, and 491, $10 wager; and a three-team 6.5 point NFL teaser; 463, 488, and 491, $20 wager."

In this example we bet $55/50 on Dallas; $44/40 on the over; $10 to make $60 on three teams assigned those rotation numbers; and we teased those same teams with a $20 wager to make $30. Total cost $129. If we go 4-0 we'll make $180 plus our original $129 for a total of $309 in this example. If we go 0-4, we get nothing. Chances are, the payback will fall somewhere in between.

Always, always check your...

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