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Making the Smart Bet on College Football


OK, so now you're ready to watch the big game. What about placing a friendly wager? If you happen to find yourself in Nevada or perhaps outside the US, you can legally bet on sports events like college football. But if you are like me, you've never actually bet on a game with a bookie, and you're a little intimidated, afraid of looking like an idiot because you don't know what to do. So I called our resident gambling expert--that would be NPR's Mike Pesca--and asked for advice, and he gave me some good news.

MIKE PESCA: If you're an uninformed gambler, you're not that much worse off than the informed or semi-informed gambler, and that's because it all depends on something called the point spread. The point spread is set by casinos or bookies or what's called the sports book. And what it is is it evens out the playing field. So they recognize which team is the favorite, and they give the other team a few extra points. So to take the Rose Bowl, the big game that will decide the national champion in college football, the sports book has determined that USC is better. So what they're going to do is they'll say, `You know what? At the end of the game, add 7 1/2 points to Texas' score and now decide. You, sports gambler, now decide who's going to win.'

CHADWICK: Let me back up. What is a sports book? Why do they call these things sports books?

PESCA: I was thinking about this. They call it a sports book in the same way that a newspaper calls it the city desk. I mean, there might not literally be a desk anywhere at the newspaper where the city stuff goes on, but at one time there was. And with a sports book, at one time someone was writing down everyone's bets in a book. Now it's a physical place. If you go in a casino, you'll see up on a screen or sometimes written in grease pencil the names of every team that's playing. So there'll be USC, and next to it will be Texas 'cause that's USC's opponent, and then there'll be a number. And it will say: USC -7, which tells you that USC is the favorite by 7 points. There'll be other numbers, and we'll get into that in a second. But all the information that you need will be up there. And you go to the person who's standing there at the sports book, the person there to take your bet, and you make your wager. So now it's a physical place as opposed to an actual book.

CHADWICK: OK. Now I have a question. If you have this number that one team's expected to beat the other by...

PESCA: Right.

CHADWICK: ...and if all the casinos and all the sports books are publicizing this number, aren't they working against themselves because if everybody bets perfectly, then everyone will break even?

PESCA: Right. Well, OK. What you're getting at here is that the casino is setting a number, not necessarily what they think will be the actual score, though it comes pretty close to that. All they have to concern themselves with is kind of diagnosing the public mind-set. So they want to come up with a number--this is their ideal number--is the one where half the money will bet on one side and half on the other. And then--so this gets at your question. Wait. If half bets on USC and half bets at Texas, then the casino breaks even, right?


PESCA: No, not right because to win $10, you have to bet 11. It's not a straight-up bet.

CHADWICK: But you say you bet 11 in order to win 10. You get your $11 back, right, plus the 10?

PESCA: Right. Right.


PESCA: You'd win--you'd have 21 in your pocket.

CHADWICK: OK. What else do I need to know? Let's say I'm bound to lose my money because I'm in a gambling establishment, but I'd like to keep my dignity if I could.

PESCA: And the other thing I would say is this; this is a key piece of advice. So far we've been talking about the spread. There's another major type of bet which is called the over-under. This is a simple bet to understand. You're not betting on who's going to win. You're just betting on how many total points are going to be scored. So in this USC-Texas game, you might say, `I don't really know who's going to win, but I think they'll score over the 75 over-under number.' Betting the under is a good way to give yourself an ulcer 'cause all you're doing is rooting for things not to happen. So in an average casino, when half the people will be cheering for one team that scores and half the people will be cheering when another team scores, the one guy kind of going, `Argh!'--he bet the under, and I'd avoid that if you don't know what you're doing.

CHADWICK: Mike, thanks again.

PESCA: You're welcome, Alex.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.