I was attempting to explain some gambling concepts to my Mom on the phone last week, and for anyone who has tried to do this, whether it’s to your spouse, a parent, a friend, whatever, it can be tricky. The general public’s knowledge about what “smart” gambling looks like is, at best, vague, and at worst, completely incorrect. Maybe they watched the movie “Two for the Money,” in which case they have bad taste in movies, and think that you win at sports by betting only professional football and charming Caribbean billionaires into paying for your tout service. That’s how I make all my money, no question. But I had to come up with something for my Mom.

Here’s an analogy I came up with: my Mom loves doing Sudoku puzzles. Loves it. The puzzles have 3 degrees of difficulty, something like beginner, intermediate, and expert. What I explained to her is that most people don’t realize the types of gambling they do, or like to do, or hear about, are actually the expert puzzle, and much more difficult to beat. The most mainstream types of bets you hear about? You should probably not start with those. Those are expert puzzles. You should start with beginner puzzles. Here’s what I mean.

An important aspect to consider in any sports betting market is, who are you really betting against? Who is your competition? Yes, the sportsbook is setting the number, some more deftly than others, but how smart is the money betting into that number?

The best way to determine how smart the money is in a pool, usually, is what limit people are allowed to bet at. If you were excellent at handicapping, had been doing it your whole life, and understood the nuances and tools required to beat expert “puzzles,” you would seek out markets where you could do the most damage. You would seek out limits that were the highest in the world, and books that would take the most action possible. Generally, those are game-day pools in sports like the NFL, or high-profile soccer, or even college football. On the day of the game, limits tend to rise significantly because the book has gotten enough information earlier in the week from sharp bettors about where the smart opinions lie. When you see point spreads before the games on Saturday and Sunday, hours before kick-off, understand that that number has been evaluated by the smartest people imaginable who do this type of thing, because the limits are incredibly high, and the numbers are probably really tight. If they weren’t, and the limits were at their highest, books would be losing a fortune. Early in the week, when the limit is 500 dollars, you can have a bad number, but on game-day when it’s 10,000, 20,000 or more, that’s a recipe for disaster.

So when you’re betting on the sports that we all love, like the NFL and college football, and even some of the other major sports, understand that you are betting against the best. Trying to beat the smartest people in this niche is not a great way to gain a foothold and build a bankroll. You may be able to do it, and if you are, all of my best to you. But you are a rarity, the exception. Most people can’t beat these numbers.

But then where do you start? If major-sport point-spreads and totals are the “expert” puzzles, what are the “beginner” ones?
If we define an expert puzzle by the amount of money that can be wagered on it, than you can figure out the beginner ones pretty easily, too. It’s the markets that books don’t want to take more than 50 dollars to 100 dollars on, and when they do, they change their price a crazy amount because of their lack of confidence in their number. Generally, those are props. And prop markets are a great way to learn and get better at pricing and bet-selection because you aren’t betting against the best of the best. To some degree, they’ve moved on to bigger and better things. That isn’t to say there aren’t smart people that beat prop markets, but at some point your bankroll gets big enough that getting 5 dollars of EV on a 100 dollar prop bet doesn’t really make a dent anymore. Why spend all of your time on 100-dollar limits when you have the acumen to earn so much more? Also, if you show any type of success betting props on most sites, they will limit you with some speed, and you’ll be forced to move on anyway. But again, that’s not you. You’re the beginner, trying to solve the beginner puzzle. Trying to beat the expert puzzles with only a rudimentary understanding of the factors involved is going to go as well as staring at an expert Sudoku puzzle without knowing how Sudoku works. You’re just going to sort-of stare at it for a while, and then guess. That sounds a lot like NFL Sundays for casual bettors.

There are folks who will read this and never want to sacrifice the adrenaline of high-limit betting to go back to the easier puzzles, and get better, and build a bankroll. The rush is what they play for, and they can’t get the rush from a hundred-dollar prop. But one question I always ask people is, why do you bet? The people mentioned above are betting for action, they are not betting to become better at this. If your goal is actually to be good at this, then the best way to get better is start small, build a bankroll, and seek out markets where you can become the expert. So find your beginner puzzles, and get started! Once you solve those problems, you’ll be on your way to the truly complex and dynamic markets sports betting has to offer.