Handicapping Sports for Beginners

If you’re breaking down a game or sporting contest with designs on choosing a winner, then you’re handicapping prior to placing your wagers. Those who engage in this practice are known as handicappers.

Understanding those two definitions is the easy part, but things get a bit trickier from that point. Exactly what does it mean to handicap? How does one go about it? Are there key pieces of information you should be looking for?

We’re going to walk through the answers to those questions and many more right here. While handicapping may seem complex at first glance, the reality is that it doesn’t take all that long to get the hang of things.

Even better, you can develop a system that works best for your strategy, time, and comfort level. We’ll also be providing you with some tips on how you can do just that.

Let’s begin by taking a more in-depth look at what it means to handicap.

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What is Handicap Betting?

If you randomly place bets based on little more than gut feel or the first thought that pops into your head, the law of averages says that you’ll pick some betting winners along the way.

However, is it really a good idea to put your hard-earned money at stake without a really good reason for doing so?

Bettors who have been around the block more than a couple of times generally don’t think so. As such, many of them will take some time to analyze their selections. Some do this by researching key pieces of information they deem important, while others will lean heavily on trusted resources to do the heavy lifting.

There are also combinations of both approaches, as well as several offshots, some of which are quite advanced while others aim to keep it simple. In all cases, these bettors are handicapping prior to making their selections.

The aim of handicap betting is to take guessing out of the equation. It’s tough to beat the oddsmakers on a long-term basis, but those who put in the time and effort can improve their chances of doing so.

For example purposes, let’s consider handicap betting from two perspectives: the point spread and moneyline. We’ll start with the former, which attracts a ton of action when it comes to football and basketball betting.

Here’s a fictitious line to consider with the home team listed at the bottom.

  • New England Patriots -3.5
  • Buffalo Bills +3.5

The Patriots are the favorite here, so we can reasonably assume that they are the stronger overall team. However, are they really 3.5 points better than the Bills while playing on the road?

Handicap betting aims to answer that question.

Next, let’s look at an example using moneyline odds, which are the more popular ways to wager on sports such as baseball and hockey.

Here’s a fake line from a baseball game with the home team listed on the bottom.

  • Baltimore Orioles +160
  • Boston Red Sox -150

As the wide spread in the odds value suggests, the Red Sox are big home favorites and expected to win. However, is there any chance the heavy underdog can pull off the upset?

To find a reasonable answer to that question, handicap betting helps tremendously.

For those new to online sports betting, handicapping can seem like it’s making things more complex. It’s actually the opposite case. The aim of handicap betting is to make it easier for you to make your selections with confidence.

The Various Kinds of Handicappers

Handicappers run the gamut from basic to advanced. There are casual bettors who don’t spend a ton of time breaking down their selections, as well as highly-experienced folks who devote much more energy to it.

In between the extremes are plenty of other different kinds of handicappers. Let’s take a look at a few of the more common types.

  • Basic: These are handicappers who are either just starting out or not looking to devote a ton of time to the practice. They want to get to the answers quickly and make their selections to place bets.
  • Intermediate: Those in this category have typically advanced in their sports betting journey and realize they need to put effort in to achieve consistent results. They’re generally in the process of developing a handicapping system that works for them.
  • Advanced: Folks who have reached this point have a good amount of experience with sports betting. They’ve researched various handicapping strategies and have devised a system that they feel works well for them.
  • Research driven: Handicappers in this group devote a ton of time to research. Some are very tech-savvy and rely on programs and algorithms to sort through data, while others take the old school approach with pen and paper.
  • Source based: Some handicappers like to source out the opinions of others as they work towards forming their own. They may use free or subscription resources, as well as a combination of the two to narrow down their choices.
  • Keep it simple: Generally those with a good deal of experience who have realized that reams of data and hours of research aren’t the answer for them. Instead, they devise a simple system which relies on key pieces of information.

There’s no right or wrong answer here, nor any one-size-fits-all approaches. The bottom line with sports betting is results. The approach you take to get to the level of consistent returns has to be one that works best for you.

For those new to handicapping, the best course of action is to try different approaches and find what clicks. You’ll know what kind of handicapper you are before too long.

5 Basic Concepts of Handicapping Sports

There are a ton of different theories on the best way to handicap sports, as well as gobs of data and information you can consider. Additionally, each sport has its own nuances to consider. That can make it all seem really confusing to those starting out.

Thankfully, there is a simple base that you can use to build off of. For major team sports such as football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, begin your handicapping journey by gaining a thorough understanding of these five concepts.

1. Look for the opening odds

Once opening odds for a slate of games are released, we can immediately start scanning and looking for potentially appealing opportunities. Once the market has had a chance to react, the odds and lines may start to adjust. This tells us which way the winds are blowing in terms of public sentiment. The odds alone can tell us a whole lot about probabilities and potential outcomes, so devote time to understanding how they work.

2. Does the team have homefield advantage

Homefield advantage can be a very big deal. However, there are also teams that excel when playing on the road. As part of your routine, dedicate time to understanding how the two teams perform in the situation they’re facing. You may find that a home team in a vulnerable spot, as well as a road team that may be in position to pounce. However, you won’t find either of them if you don’t take the time to look.

3. Overall team strength

This goes beyond favorites and underdogs in a matchup. Homefield advantage can skew odds and lines, so it’s important to look past that for a second to determine which team is actually better. It can be helpful to picture them facing off on a neutral field to help determine this. In addition, there are numerous power rankings systems which rank teams from top to bottom on overall strength.

4. Are there any matchup advantages

To find potentially exploitable advantages for either team, you really have to dig into the matchup. In its simplest form, you’re looking at offense vs. defense on both sides as well as the opposite. For each sport, you can also dig into more specifics, such as an NFL team that has a problem with pass-catching running backs, or an NBA team that really struggles against opposing big men.

5. Look at the teams recent play

Teams go through good swings and bad swings. While recent play is no guarantee of what’s to come in the future, it’s a strong indicator of how things are going for the team overall. If one team is surging while the other is flailing, you’ve found an important variable to consider.

The above five points make for a fine beginning, but you’ll need to consider other variables based on the sport you plan on wagering on. For example, strength on power play and penalty kill can be a huge factor in hockey. In MLB, there are teams that perform well versus right-handed pitchers but struggle mightily against lefties.

If you start with the basics as a base, you can then build out your system and continue tweaking as you learn more things. You can keep it simple or get as advanced as you would like. Once you get to the point of establishing consistency with your picks, you’re on the right track.

3 Things Sports Handicappers Look For

The first few times you handicap games, you may find that the process takes a little bit. Don’t be alarmed by this. It’s all part of the learning curve. The more times you do it, the quicker it’ll go from start to finish.

In a nutshell, you’ll get a routine down. You’ll find yourself starting in the same spot each day, such as by examining the odds for the upcoming slate. Many handicappers are creatures of habit and will walk through the process in the same manner each time.

Additionally, many will quickly learn to add a few important pieces of intel into the equation. Here are some of the most notable things that handicappers keep their eyes on.

1. News and Notes

For each of the games you are considering wagering on, be sure to take time to examine the news surrounding the contest. Are any key players injured? How about changes to the starting lineups? Any hot or cold streaks you should be aware of? Any weather-related concerns? Sometimes there will be nothing of note, but taking a few minutes to digest this information can make a really big difference in the long run.

2. Line Movements

From the time opening lines are released up to game time, the betting market has its chance to react. Oddsmakers will adjust lines accordingly, so the line that appears before the game gets underway may be quite different than what was released. Get in the habit of keeping an eye on changes in the lines, and also understanding why they are moving – i.e. key injury or market reaction.

3. Public Betting Action

Speaking of market reaction, it can also be helpful to understand which side the public is betting on for your chosen games. There are games in which public money is neck-and-neck on both sides, but there are also some in which there’s a wide disparity one way or the other. When you come across one of those situations, take an even closer look to determine why that is.

As you gain more experience with handicapping, steps such as these will become second nature, not unlike checking the weather in the morning before you leave the house.

How to Handicap Lines

At the core, handicapping for the moneyline and point spread share plenty in common. You’ll be reviewing the same pieces of information to get to a bottom line on who you think will win the game in both cases.

You can call it a day for moneyline purposes from there, but there’s more work to do with point spreads. Not only do you need to figure out who is going to win, but you also have to make a reasonable conclusion on a margin of victory.

Let’s take a look at two sets of lines in the point spread-based sports, starting with the NBA.

  • Miami Heat +4.5
  • Boston Celtics -4.5

The Celtics are favored to win the game by 4.5 points. Now, let’s glance at a random NFL spread.

  • New York Giants +6
  • Dallas Cowboys -6

The Cowboys are favored to win by 6 points. So we have two pretty big favorites. Now what?

First things first, we’ll go back to our original handicapping process. How are the road and home teams performing in those situations? Any matchup issues that stand out? What about recent play from both sides?

If we have all of our ducks in a row there, then we can spend additional time on the respective strengths of the two teams. As mentioned previously, there are a number of free power ranking sources out there which rank each team by numerical value.

You can compare the numerical value for the two teams in question, and then factor in the home field. After that has been factored in, the difference between the two numbers represents a fair spread between the two teams.

Next, take this spread and compare it to what’s listed. Oftentimes, it’ll be in range, as popular power rankings systems that are built to stand the test of time aren’t that far off from the ones that oddsmakers use.

There will be times when the number is ‘off.’ It then becomes up to you to determine which side is right – your power ranking assisted spread, or the one at the sportsbook you are examining.

That’s a quick way to work through point spreads without pulling your hair out. There are advanced handicappers out there who devise their own power rankings systems and swear by them.

If you’d like to do the same, that’s perfectly fine. Just know that there are trusted resources out there that you can lean on before you get to that point.

A Simple Handicapping Strategy

If we take all of the information we have walked through right here, we have ourselves a simple handicapping strategy. For your convenience, let’s take a look on a step-by-step basis.

  • Examine the Odds. Current lines are most important, but look at opening numbers to see if there have been any shifts.
  • News and Notes: Review the news surrounding the game, such as injury issues, lineup changes, or any weather concerns.
  • Home/Away: Is there a big homefield advantage in this contest or is it not much of a factor?
  • Matchup: Any noticeable edges on offense or defense? What are the strengths and weaknesses of both sides?
  • Recent Play: Momentum can have a carryover effect. Examine which teams are playing well versus those who are not.
  • Overall Strength: Consult power rankings – your own or a free public resource – if there’s a point spread to consider.
  • Line Moves: Be cognizant of any line moves from the open until the time you are ready to place bets and see if that impacts your thinking.
  • Public Betting: Research which side the public is on for the game. There are resources online which track public betting action in percentage form.

If you can go through those eight simple steps when handicapping games, you’ll be on the right track. As time permits, you can add additional variables to the equation that you deem important.

The Bottom Line on How to Handicap Sports

Handicapping sports is the process in which you break down games or contests to determine who you think will win. There are numerous theories on how to go about doing this, ranging from the simple to the complex.

For those new to handicapping, start with the basics and work your way out. We have outlined a simple handicapping approach which you can use and tweak as you see fit. The process takes some getting used to, but it becomes a lot quicker the more times you work through it.

It’s important to understand that merely handicapping will not lead to guaranteed results. However, a finely-tuned strategy can lead you to winning tickets more often than not, and that’s the name of the game.

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