What is Handicapping?

People who successfully bet on sports over long periods of time don’t rely on luck. They learn how to and become very adept at handicapping the sporting events they wager upon.

On its most basic level, handicapping is researching a sporting event and coming up with your own odds for the event. Then, you can compare those odds to the ones at your local sportsbook when deciding what to bet on. People who do so professionally are known as handicappers. While that’s a simple definition, it’s a difficult task. Even the most skilled veteran handicappers can go awry.  There’s no one way to handicap, so finding what’s comfortable for you is important.

People who are new to the game have many questions.

  • What pieces of information do I need?
  • How do I turn that information into useful data?
  • Where can I find the information I need?

Although some handicappers use advanced algorithms they have built over years, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Once you understand the basic concepts and language, you can begin.

In this guide, we’ll go through those basic concepts and that language. Then we’ll show you how to apply those concepts to a few examples. In no time, you’ll start developing your own system for handicapping. The first thing you need to understand is the benefit of handicapping. You really can dramatically increase your chances of betting successfully.

What are the benefits of handicapping?

A lot of bettors will put their money down on their favorite athletes or teams because of their emotional connection to the same. While that can enhance the enjoyment of the sporting events, it’s not the best strategy for actually getting paid on your wagers.

Others will simply go with a gut feeling or because they hear a tip from someone. Again, that can lead to sportsbooks keeping your money more often than not. Of course, if you bet often enough with any of these strategies, you’ll eventually win some. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

If you’re betting on sports with any other ambition than just for fun, however, these are poor plans. It makes no sense to risk your hard-earned money on a random tip or your emotional connection to a team. If you’d actually like to win more than you lose, you need to handicap events you want to bet on. Not doing so is essentially throwing your money away.

You can be sure that the sportsbooks have handicapped every event they offer markets upon. They set up the odds so that they will win more than they lose. To compete, you need to do the same. The odds are still stacked against you but if you learn to be selective about your bets, you can even those odds some.

How to handicap sporting events

To demonstrate how to handicap, we’ll start with a real moneyline market. The same principles can apply to any and every other type of wager, however.

The following is a real market on a Nashville Predators game from early in the 2019-20 season. Nashville was the home team in this particular contest.

Anaheim Ducks+160
Nashville Predators-150

As you can see, there’s a wide disparity in the odds on the two sides of this market. That means the sportsbook was very confident Nashville would win this game. In handicapping this game, you should ask yourself, is there any chance Anaheim pulls off an upset? How can I determine whether there is a solid chance of that happening?

To size up that possibility, you need to gather some pertinent information. The information is quite readily available, and for free.

What information do I need to handicap?

For most team sports like hockey, the important information is pretty standard. If you get a good grasp of the answers to the following five questions, you can feel confident about your assessment of the situation. You can find a wealth of information on how athletes and teams are performing on the Sports Reference family of sport-specific sites for free. The information there is very reliable and updated regularly.

What are the teams’ recent forms? Recent form is a term that means how well have the two teams played recently. This includes statistics along with the win-loss record. Injury news is also crucial here.

Does a comparison show any matchup advantages for one team? Continuing with our Predators example, do the statistics show that Nashville struggles defending against a certain type of formation, and if so, are the Ducks adept with that set?

Is playing at home a significant advantage for the home team? In this case, you would simply look at how both teams perform at home versus on the road. It would also be helpful to ascertain how well the visiting team fares in that specific venue historically.

Which team is objectively better? Many times sportsbooks will set markets giving preference to teams on hot streaks and/or playing at home. In sizing up the competition, it can help to take an objective look at which team is overall superior to the other on paper in a neutral setting without accounting for recent form. A good way to do this is by comparing how both teams have fared against common opponents.

Is it better to be early than lucky? At many sportsbooks, the best odds you’ll get on a straight bet for team sports are the earliest odds. Like you, the sportsbooks adjust in the lead-up to the games and they get more certain about their line as information comes out. It can also help to shop around the various sportsbooks, in other words, get a second opinion.

How to draw useful conclusions from your handicapping

Some handicappers will assign numerical values to the data they gather. For example, for each home game a team has lost during a season leading up to the game in question, they might give that team’s odds of winning the game a -5 value. These handicappers will work up formulas for themselves with all the variables included. They most often use a spreadsheet of some kind to do so.

A good starting point for your own formula can be a number you pick as a baseline, assuming both teams come into the contest with an equal chance to win the game. Then you can use all the information you’ve gathered and assigned a numerical value in order to decrease or increase those chances.

How in-depth you go is completely up to you. Breaking down the information in a mathematical equation is a solid strategy because it takes your biases and emotion out of the situation. Once you’ve completed your formula and have your results, you can compare them to the markets at the sportsbooks. If there’s a significant disparity between your findings and the market at the sportsbook, you might have an opportunity.

Returning to our hockey example, let’s suppose your numbers-crunching shows that the disparity in the odds in Nashville’s favor is well merited. In that case, you’d be best off to take the shorter odds on the Predators While that might have been your conclusion without doing all the leg work, you should feel more confident about your bet. Because you did your homework, you know that Anaheim is highly unlikely to win this game.

Handicapping individual sports

Let’s say that instead of considering a straight bet on a team sport like hockey, you are looking at a moneyline market on an individual sport like golf or tennis. The process is very much the same.

Again, you need to gather information on the athletes and the matchup. Some examples of questions you need to answer in the course of your digging are:

  • Have these athletes faced each other before and, if so, how did those events turn out?
  • How do these athletes fare historically in this particular event?
  • What are the weather conditions supposed to be like for the event and how could that affect play?
  • Are both athletes healthy and what are their recent forms?
  • Does the playing surface suggest an advantage for either athlete?

Once again, you can start with a baseline and assign a numerical value to each piece of information. Then run your formula and evaluate the betting markets off your conclusion. Other types of bets, such as football point spreads, will require you to tweak your approach. This can include adding extra research to your hunting.

For example, you will need to record how much teams are losing and winning games by in addition to whether they are losing and winning. That will help you ascertain the likelihood that a team will replicate those results in future contests. Handicapping is a process of customization along with trial and error. As you go along and get experience, you will discover what works best for you.

Eventually, you will get your system down, and evaluating markets can become as natural as checking the weather each day. When you get to that point, the sportsbook operators won’t take your money so easily and on more frequent occasions, you will have the last laugh.