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What Is Handicapping?

19 June 2002

What is handicapping? It's the most well-known method of gaining an advantage at sports betting.

Bookmakers set lines on a sporting event depending on their assessment of the likelihood of a particular team or teams winning, minus the "vigorish", which is their profit. They then adjust for the amount of money bet by the public, ideally to cover all possible outcomes equally, leaving them with the vigorish in profit.

Handicappers try to develop a predictive mathematical model which is superior to that of the bookies. The handicapper has one significant advantage--the bookmakers have little time to set lines and must use relatively simply methods to do so. The handicapper can build a system of almost infinite complexity and specialize in a certain field. In theory, all the handicapper has to do is identify lines where the deviation from the "true" probability of an event is enough to overcome the vigorish and bet accordingly.

In practice, of course, it is very difficult to do successfully. Most lines set by oddsmakers are accurate. The best handicappers tend to end up as oddsmakers, so this is unsurprising. Even when they are not, the vigorish may protect the house. Even when it does not, the potential advantage may be small. Even when the potential advantage is large, the risks, particulary with long-shot wagers, may be high, forcing the handicapper to bet conservatively.

Sporting contests are not like card games. They are subject to myriad ever-changing factors which are impossible to analyze completely--key injuries, tactical elements, home advantage, weather, psychology--all of which impact off each other in a chaotic manner. The handicapper always has that nagging feeling that the rules have changed and his predictive model is no longer accurate. And indeed, anyone who has attempted handicapping will know that this occurs all the time as your surefire winning system becomes devalued by the corrective behaviour of the market.

There are tales of five and six-figure annual profits made by sports bettors. Some of them are even true. But, even amongst advantage players whose very existence depends on beating unbeatable games, the successful handicapper is a rare creature indeed.

John May
John May is one of the most feared gamblers in the world. He has developed "advantage play" techniques for many games that are considered unbeatable.

Books by John May:

> More Books By John May

John May
John May is one of the most feared gamblers in the world. He has developed "advantage play" techniques for many games that are considered unbeatable.

Books by John May:

> More Books By John May