A Smooth Ride? Don’t Bet On It!

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It’s mid-August, so it’s only natural for those of us who wager on college and professional football to be filled with anticipation.

Other than rosters provided by a host of magazines at the newsstand and a mountain of year-old statistics, we really have very little information on which to base intelligent early season plays. But that doesn’t deter the football bettor’s preseason excitement.

Perhaps you’ve had some success in past years with your own handicapping, and now after fine-tuning your methods, you feel eager to attack that first weekend’s board. Or maybe you will be relying on a sports advisory service with a sterling reputation. Surely a reputable service with a well-documented track record will fatten your wallet over the next five months.

The slate is clean. All you need now is to remain focused and disciplined.

The season begins and the first three weekends go smoothly. You’ve built a seemingly comfortable lead over Old Man Vigorish with a respectable record of 17 wins and 10 losses. Hey, that’s 63 percent. Even better than you thought possible. Your hard offseason work has paid off. Or maybe that sports advisory service is everything the magazine ad promised.

Now it’s time to get serious. You’re on the right track. So, why not increase the amount of your wagers from that conservative 2 percent of bankroll to 8 percent? No reason not to. At least none you can think of.

Then the unthinkable happens. The Saturday of week four is a nightmare. Seven college plays, six of them lopsided losers. Your stomach is churning. But there is the possibility of a comeback on Sunday and Monday night.

However, a split on four Sunday plays, followed by a gut-wrenching Monday night defeat because of an interception return for a touchdown as time expires, leaves you staring at a weekend record of 3-9. Solemnly pondering the unexpected debacle that has flattened your season record to 20-19 and the ill-timed wager increase that has turned your once-green bankroll blood-red, you’re at a total loss for an explanation.

You had every conceivable angle figured. The weather was fine and there were no major injuries. But those losses, one right after another … how could they have happened?

The answer is fairly simple, but unfortunately it lies in an area too often ignored by the huge majority of those who ever put money on sporting events. Part of the answer is lack of discipline, but even more important is a failure to become familiar with the concept of random distribution.

Try talking random distribution to your sports betting friends, and they’ll likely change the subject. But the truth is few bettors truly appreciate the fact that random distribution of wins and losses over the course of a season — or a lifetime — of wagers is an inescapapble mathematical certainty. And their ability to deal with the wild fluctuations that characterize random distribution will have a major impact on their bankroll.

Sports bettors who have learned to value hitting 55- to 58-percent winners over the long haul indeed have much of the battle behind them. However, there is another step to take. They must discard the notion that a 55- to 58-percent season will be a smooth ride, because in all probability it will not.

Most bettors rarely consider it, but the distribution of wins and losses in a football season of, say, 250 plays very closely resembles the distribution of heads and tails in a series of 250 coin flips.

What do coin flips have to do with picking winners? Afterall, we are using time-tested handicapping methods, and a month into the season we know more about these college and NFL teams than we know about our neighbors. But remember that a 55- 58-percent season of winners is only a little higher than the 50 percent we would expect from a series of coin flips, and they share a very important characteristic — random distribution.

With this in mind, try the following experiment. Grab a quarter and flip it 1,000 times. Go ahead, just do it.

Now, within those 1,000 flips, locate a series of 250 flips in which there are 145 heads or tails. That’s 58 percent. This may take some time, but it will be time well-spent.

Once you find those 250 flips, let the 145 heads or tails (it doesn’t matter which) represent 145 wins in a football season of 58-percent success. The remaining 105 occurrences represent losses.

Closely inspect the distribution of heads and tails (or wins and losses) within your sample of 250 flips. You will notice that the heads and tails occur in totally random patterns. You can probably find a series of seven heads and another series of seven tails. You will also find numerous stretches of, say, three heads and nine tails.

Remember the weekend of three wins and nine losses that crushed the sports bettor in our scenario above? His experience was precisely the same as a series of 12 coin flips that produce three heads and nine tails.

As a sports bettor, you can count on similar stretches to occur over and over. And if you are not careful with the percentage of bankroll you risk on each game, such losing stretches will put you on the sideline before the first month of the season is over.

If this seems all too elementary, then ask yourself why most bettors have such a difficult time understanding and reacting properly to severe losing stretches?  It’s largely because they are not prepared to deal with random distribution, which makes extended stretches of wins and losses inevitable. In fact, the only consistency in a season of sports wagering is inconsistency.

Very likely, when you susbscribe to a sports advisory service or embark on a season armed with your own methods, you expect a consistent, flowing ride all the way through the Super Bowl.  And you’re disheartened when it doesn’t happen that way.

Personally, I would jump at a guaranteed a 55-percent winning season comprised of nothing but 11-9 weekends. But I know that’s highly unlikely to occur.

So, we must realize that unpredictable patterns of winning and losing stretches are the rule — not the exception — in sports wagering. Only with that knowledge do we have a chance to survive the inevitable losses and remain committed to our long-term goal of generating a long-term profit.

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