Can You Handicap This Football League?

This is from the original manuscript of a column written for Casino Player magazine in 1993. It’s about sports betting and how many people can easily be fooled by trends that have no basis, other than luck. –

“Mike Caro”


How Well Can You Handicap This Football League?

Pretend you’re betting football on another planet where you’ve gone for a three-month vacation. There are eight professional teams in a league, and you have nothing to base your wagers on. You’ll simply have to make your decisions after analyzing the boxscores for several weeks. Sadly, the boxscores deal with only two statistics: the final score and first downs. The casinos are glad to take your bets, for any amount of money, provided you lay the traditional 11-to-10. Fine, now here’s what you read in the sports section on the morning after the first day of the season:

Week 1 games…
Asteroids 42 (17 first downs)
Big Bangs 24 ( 9 first downs)

Black Holes 11 (9 first downs)
Comets 25 (18 first downs)

To the right of each team name are the final points, followed by the number of first downs. Let me give you a few clues. Don’t think about which team is listed above the other, because the crowds are very polite, almost impartial, and there exists no home-team advantage on this planet. And don’t think in terms of touchdowns or field goals, because points don’t come in clumps of seven or three in your new world.

Now let me show you the next 10 weeks, leading up to the final games.

Week 2 games…

Black Holes 18 ( 8 first downs)
Asteroids 38 (18 first downs)

Comets 15 (10 first downs)
Big Bangs 31 (13 first downs)

Week 3 games…
Asteroids 2 ( 2 first downs)
Comets 16 ( 5 first downs)

Big Bangs 34 (17 first downs)
Black Holes 35 (17 first downs)

Week 4 games…

Big Bangs 32 (15 first downs)
Asteroids 8 ( 3 first downs)

Comets 16 ( 9 first downs)
Black Holes 19 ( 6 first downs)

Week 5 games…

Asteroids 35 (20 first downs)
Black Holes 18 ( 9 first downs)

Big Bangs 5 ( 2 first downs)
Comets 20 (13 first downs)

Week 6 games…

Comets 10 ( 4 first downs)
Asteroids 6 ( 6 first downs)

Black Holes 41 (16 first downs)
Big Bangs 18 ( 9 first downs)

Week 7 games…

Asteroids 26 (12 first downs)
Big Bangs 2 ( 2 first downs)

Black Holes 27 (16 first downs)
Comets 35 (19 first downs)

Week 8 games…

Black Holes 14 (9 first downs)
Asteroids 6 (5 first downs)

Comets 13 ( 7 first downs)
Big Bangs 38 (17 first downs)

Week 9 games…

Asteroids 15 (7 first downs)
Comets 28 (10 first downs)

Big Bangs 23 (10 first downs)
Black Holes 40 (18 first downs)

Week 10 games…

Big Bangs 26 (11 first downs)
Asteroids 7 ( 8 first downs)

Comets 35 (18 first downs)
Black Holes 16 ( 8 first downs)

Week 11 games…

Asteroids 5 ( 3 first downs)
Black Holes 6 ( 3 first downs)

Big Bangs 22 (10 first downs)
Comets 26 (18 first downs)

OK, now it’s time to bet. But first let’s make a chart of the season statistics so far…

Team           Wins Losses Ties Points Points against 1st Downs Allowed 1st
Comets          8         3        0        239             192            131               96
Black Holes    6        5         0       245             270            119              146
Asteroids        4        7         0       190             194            101               85
Big Bangs       4        7          0       255             273            139              139

After studying the chart, how would you bet these lines for next week’s games?

Game 1: Asteroids are a 3 point favorite to beat the Big Bangs.

Game 2: Comets are a 7 point favorite to beat the Black Holes.

Think about it before you read on. Now I’m going to tell you a secret that may someday earn you some money. On the planet where you’re vacationing, nobody has any advantage over anyone else. All results are based on pure, dumb luck. How do I know? Because I devised this league inside a computer.

The Comets boast the superior record, but not because of skill.

Now that I’ve told you my secret, how would you bet the games? You’d take the points in both cases, right? Fine, but you might not grasp the importance of this just yet. Similar situations happen from time to time in real life on our own planet Earth. And you should be on the lookout for these opportunities if you want to earn some easy money.

Sometimes when I explain this concept, people remark that there’s no way to know if the results are just dumb luck or if skill made some teams win more than others. But there is a way. Before you get trapped by analyzing how much each first down contributes to the score (in the computer’s mind, it averages two points, by the way), or by looking back to see how the same teams did against each other in the previous meetings, try this…

Go through the season to date and pretend you always bet the team with the most wins going into the next game. If they both had the same number of wins, pretend you didn’t bet. Now, count up your wins and losses. Guess what? You won eight out of 16, half the time. It didn’t do you any good to bet the best performers, and you shouldn’t lay points if there’s no reason. What you see is the signature of what I call a “coin flip” league. That’s a league where some teams do better than others, but it’s all due to luck. You could get similar win-loss results by flipping coins.

But, in this case, you were able to look at the results and determine, without using any sophisticated statistical tools, that something might be wrong, that the favorites might not be the favorites, and that there might be money to be made.

I concede that the number of games shown in this example is insufficient for you to feel comfortable about betting big, especially on a strange planet. But you see the point, right? Although you aren’t really going to find any sports bets where the teams are exactly even and the results are all luck, you will find situations where the teams are closely skilled and the results are mostly luck.

In such cases, the lines will tend to reflect public sentiment, rather than the true relative values of the teams. This is when you must bet the underdogs.

Think about it.


I’ve often thought, if I got really hungry for a good milk shake, how much would I pay for one? People will pay a hundred dollars for a bottle of wine; to me that’s not worth it. But I’m not going to say it is foolish or wrong to spend that kind of money, if that’s what you want. So if a guy wants to bet twenty or thirty thousand dollars in a poker game, that is his privilege.” ― Jack Binion

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