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How the house makes its bread on the spread

30 June 2000

Dear Mark,
How does a casino make money on sporting bets when you bet against the spread? Nick L.

Whenever you place a point-spread type wager, Nick, you lay 11 to win 10. That means if you want to win $100, you have to wager $110 no matter which team you are betting. If you win, you will collect $210-your $110 wager plus the $100 you just won. This commission, also called a vigorish (aka vig), is the compensation taken by the house on every sport bet wagered.

Dear Mark,
My brother-in-law never makes a bet on his favorite football team, but on the final score. What type of bet is that? Cindy H.

Football betting, Cindy, offers you the ability to wager on the combined total of points scored by both teams during a game. This bet is called a "totals" wager or an under/over bet. Winning an over bet requires that more points be scored than the linemaker's total. Winning an under wager requires that fewer points be scored.

Dear Mark,
What percentage of sports bets do I have to win to be even against the casino? Jessup C.

To break even against the house edge, you need to win at least 52.38% of any point-spread wagers you make.

Dear Mark,
What is your longest winning streak betting sports? Matt O.

I once developed rotator cuff tendonitis patting myself on the back when I picked winners in 19 out of 20 horse races over two days when my ponies either won or placed at Del Mar. Also, I have done extremely well handicapping the Indianapolis 500. Other than that I feel I'm like the veteran losing gambler who was hopelessly hooked on football betting. Nothing else interested him. Unfortunately, he lost almost every bet he made. Finally, even his bookie felt bad for him. "You lose all your bets," said the bookie. "Why don't you bet on hockey instead of football?"

"Hockey?" said the gambler in dismay. "But I don't know anything about hockey!"

Dear Mark,
In our office football pool, I place near the bottom almost every week. Any advice on what I can blame my continuous losses on? Randy V.

Sports betting is a combination of both skill and luck. Your wins, Randy, come from your superb handicapping skills. Just blame your losses on a late game interception or fumble.

Dear Mark,
I live in California and don't want to drive to Las Vegas just to place football bets. I've heard that you can make wagers to sportsbooks in Nevada over the phone. Any truth to this? Russell M.

Nevada casinos do offer account wagering via the phone, Russell, but ONLY if you live in the state of Nevada. Making a bet from outside of Nevada violates the Interstate Wire Act (18 U.S.C. 1084). This code provides criminal penalties to anyone engaging in the business of betting when using a wire communication facility for the transmission of interstate (that's you, Russell) or foreign commerce of bets or wagers on any sporting event or contest. Russell, you technically can't even call up a high school buddy who is dealing dice at the Mirage and ask him to place bets for you.

Dear Mark,
When the casino sportsbook has a game circled, what does it usually mean? Marty C.

A circled sporting event indicates that you will not be able to bet the normal maximum. If the normal maximum betting limit is $5,000, the casino may accept only a $2, 000 wager on a circled game. Circled games generally mean that the sportsbook is unsure of the correct line or the status of an injured key player is unknown.

Dear Mark,
I realize that I am betting a long shot when I bet a 10-team parlay, but what are my true chances of hitting it? Lorenzo D.

The casino will pay you 500 for 1 when you hit a 10-team parlay, but your chances of hitting one are 1,023 to 1. Ouch! Too sweet a profit for the casino for my hard-earned money.

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Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.