Handicapping Sports for Beginners

Handicapping sports is both a common and commonly-misunderstood concept in sports betting. The layman’s vague notion of the handicapper, who uses an arcane mixture of knowledge and information to make his bets, conveys that sports betting is a form of wizardry.

However, Colorado residents and visitors will soon have sports betting and, therefore, handicapping coming to a casino nearby. So, here is a handy guide to dispense some of the myths around handicapping sports.

How handicapping works

As it turns out, many people may have handicapped sports without even realizing it. Handicapping is the process of using available information to make bets on sporting events, so if you’ve ever wagered on a game using more than just your gut instinct, you’ve been a handicapper.

Let’s be honest for a second, though. The truth of sports betting is that sportsbooks are really good at what they do. The lines and estimates that they set often have a level of accuracy that seems uncanny.

However, that doesn’t mean that you just have to hand over your money to them. Instead, there are several concepts and strategies that can help reduce the mystery of sports betting and, in some cases, allow you to see some profitable opportunities.

For instance, let’s say that you’re looking at a sportsbook’s board, and you happen to see the following bet:

College Basketball – Cornell vs. Harvard

Point Spread:

  • Cornell +13.5
  • Harvard -13.5

So, according to this bet, Harvard is the clear favorite in the game. With such a large spread, there’s little disagreement that Harvard will win. Indeed, the moneyline for Harvard is sitting at a whopping -1250.

However, the question remains about whether Harvard will win by more than 13.5 points. Here is the rub, because from a team perspective, a win of 12 or 13 points would be just as decisive as a 14 or 15-point win.

The entire purpose of handicapping is to answer that question.

What information handicappers use

Most experienced handicappers have a time-worn system that they use to analyze opportunities. Everyone’s process varies, but they all cover the same ground, eventually.

Generally speaking, a handicapper comes to a decision about a wager using the following pieces of information:

  1. Opening odds: The first clue about the direction that a game might go is the most obvious. The sportsbook’s initial odds usually indicate that the book’s experts have carefully analyzed the matchup and reached a decision. The opening odds are also important to establish a baseline for where things end up. There is a ton of information that can be gleaned solely from how the odds moved from their initial point.
  2. Overall team strength: Obviously, a key factor in determining how a game will proceed is to look at the strength of its participants. As a general rule, the team with more wins to that point is more likely to win. However, the savvy handicapper doesn’t just take a cursory look at the league tables and go from there. It’s important to dig into the statistics about what makes each team good or bad.
  3. Matchup advantages: Most teams tend to favor certain types of opponents and dread others. So, it’s vital that you, the enterprising handicapper, look at how the teams have performed historically against other similar teams. Look for past opponents with similar personnel, talent, or strategy in their approach to the game. It is also important to consider any injuries that might be affecting a team. The absence of a key player could render a solid team suspect, particularly against a tough matchup.
  4. Recent play: Teams also go through ups and downs during a season. Some teams improve as time goes by, while others get tired and wither. Injuries can also play into this equation, too. How a team reacts to the loss of a particular player can affect how the season is going.
  5. Home advantage: Finally, the team playing in its home field, arena, or gym is often at a significant advantage. There are both tangible and intangible positives to using facilities that are one’s own, and those factors can play out on the scoreboard. However, be wary of placing too much faith in the effect the home turf has. There are numerous examples of teams that performed better on the road, to say nothing of the fact that some teams are so good that it doesn’t matter if they are the visitors.

These 5 bits of information are just a start

Few handicappers do not incorporate these pieces of information into their decisions, at least in some regard. The weight that each handicapper puts upon each element varies from person to person.

This information is also not the endpoint or the only data that you can collect. With so much analytics in sports today, it is possible to dig into the statistics extremely deeply. You’ll have to determine which stats are worth your extra time, if any.

How to find relevant information

Finding out the bits of information you need to handicap accurately is always a challenge. With so much news floating around these days, it can be a bit overwhelming.

However, there are a few sources of information that could prove fruitful in your search for relevant tidbits about an upcoming game.

Sports-based media

Obviously, the first stop for most information about sports is with media sources that are dedicated to covering it. Although there are big names in the industry, like ESPN or Fox Sports, it’s a good idea to decide individually what your preferred source is. There’s nothing wrong with the big names, but don’t be afraid to shop around for various pieces of information.

Line movements

One thing to bear in mind is that there are numerous sharp bettors out there today. It’s simply unreasonable to believe that your information and analysis is always going to be the best, particularly if you’re just starting out.

However, there’s nothing wrong with watching how seasoned bettors are causing lines to shift. If you detect that the “smart” money is going a certain way, there might be a good reason to follow suit.

On the other hand, you should weigh the line movements against the other data that you’ve collected. Some of the best opportunities to make money occur when you can correctly go against the crowd on a bet.

News and weather reports

Finally, don’t ignore larger factors that could affect one or both teams’ performances in a game. Both weather events and large-scale news events could contribute to a particularly sloppy or focused performance.

For instance, a team from the northern part of the country is likely going to be less affected by a snowstorm. So, for example, if the Miami Dolphins play the Buffalo Bills in late December, there could be more than just Josh Allen on the Bills’ side.

Don’t ignore how stories of illnesses or tragedies could affect a team’s performance, either. It might sound callous, but a team or player who is normally less-than-stellar could come out especially focused or motivated in trying times.

Types of handicappers

Obviously, there’s a wide degree of variation in terms of skill level for handicappers. Most people fall somewhere between a basic and intermediate level, where they can synthesize information with varying degrees of success.

Some handicappers are experts, however. These select few can handicap professionally, and have an established system for processing the information to come to accurate conclusions.

Regardless of their skill level, handicappers tend to break down into one of three types of bettors. These three types are all different approaches to determining predictions, and all three are perfectly valid.

  1. Researchers: Handicappers in this category are all about the hard data. They spend their time crunching numbers and developing algorithms to create a unique set of betting opportunities. These types of bettors can be either tech-savvy or old-school, but in either case, they are comfortable sorting through statistics of all stripes.
  2. Opinion Gatherers: For some handicappers, the notion of sifting through mountains of numbers seems either tedious or untenable. So, they collect expert opinions from as many sources as they can in order to come to a conclusion. The end result of their analysis boils down to which expert arguments they find most convincing.
  3. Globalists: Finally, some handicappers eschew the idea of spending a great deal of time on research, whether it be on statistics or expert opinions. Instead, they identify a few key indicators and live with the results from there. This approach might seem a bit cavalier, at first glance, but the quality of their systems’ few inputs leads to results that are as acceptable as any.

The unifying thread between all three types of handicappers is the notion of a system. As a burgeoning handicapper, you need to develop and use a consistent method for approaching each sports bet.

As time goes by, you will obviously refine the system more and more. In the end, it doesn’t really matter how you approach handicapping, so long as you are comfortable with going through all of your steps.

A simple handicapping process

At this point, you might feel like you’ve attempted to drink from a fire hose. There’s a lot to digest about handicapping, and you may be at a loss about getting started.

So, to help break through the ice, here is a simple procedure for analyzing a potential sports bet.

1: Start with the odds

Examine the current lines for a wager, but keep an eye on the odds as gametime approaches. Any movement could be indicative of where the smart money is going.

2: Consider the matchup

This step is one of the most important. Each athlete or team will have specific strengths and weaknesses, and how those line up with their competition will largely determine the outcome of the game.

Take note if the players or teams have a rivalry or history with each other, as recent events could act as motivation. Some matchups always end up competitive, no matter the teams’ records.

For instance, in a recent game, a sub-.500 University of North Carolina basketball team took #7 Duke into overtime and had several chances to win outright. Even if teams may look disparate on paper, there may be external factors that shrink the gap considerably.

3: Search for news

Google both teams or competitors playing in a match. Look for any storylines that might impact a player’s or team’s performance. Don’t forget to check for external items, such as the weather or injuries.

4: Examine the home advantage

Whichever team is playing at home is usually going to have an advantage. However, don’t simply live with the assumption. Investigate both teams’ home and away records. If the teams or players have a rivalry, it could negate OR exacerbate the advantage of playing on home turf.

5: Note recent play

As we said above, teams and players go through ups and downs. The extremely small margins of error in high level athletics mean that small tweaks could indicate that a team is vastly improved or declined from earlier in the season.

So, take note of the team or player’s recent performance. If they seem to be coming together lately, then early stumbles may not be as relevant. Conversely, if they came out like gangbusters, but it seems like teams have solved them lately, then a strong record could be illusory.

One quick way to get a sense of recent play is to examine the power rankings that involve the team. Many free resources exist that could give you a sense of a team coming up or moving down.

6: Follow the money…or don’t

Finally, search online for the public betting action on your game of choice. A rush of people to one side might indicate that there’s an underlying issue affecting the expected outcome of the game.

However, don’t follow blindly. Pros get things wrong, too. Make sure to dive into the reasons behind the rush to one bet or another. If you can reach a different conclusion, it might represent a profitable situation.

Process example with real-world bet

Let’s walk through an example of how executing this process would work. We will use a real-world bet from DraftKings Sportsbook in order to go through our steps.

So, let’s say that we want to bet the moneyline of a college basketball game involving Illinois and Penn State. Here’s how the bet appeared:

  • Illinois: +255
  • Penn State: -315
  1. Start with the odds – Penn State was a significant favorite in this match. In fact, a bettor would have had to bet $315 in order to win $100 with a bet on the Nittany Lions. As game time approached, we’d want to watch both lines to see if the odds on Illinois get any longer or not.
  2. Consider the matchup – At the time, Penn State had a 18-4 record and was ranked the #9 team in the nation in both the AP and Coaches Polls. Illinois, on the other hand, is unranked and was a respectable, if middling, 16-9. The Fighting Illini were not a bad team, but unlikely to be in the same tier as Penn State. The two teams are conference foes, as both are members of the Big Ten. However, the schools do not enjoy a particular rivalry with each other, so there’s no reason to expect that this game was circled on either team’s schedule.
  3. Search for news – Penn State’s appearance in the top ten of the AP rankings was only the third in the school’s history. They were, no doubt, anxious to prove themselves as a top-tier team. There were no major weather events that could have played a role in the outcome of the game. There was rain, but no ice or snow might impede players or fans from attending. Finally, the only injury for Penn State belonged to Myreon Jones, a 6’3” guard in the starting lineup. He was listed as questionable for the game, due to illness. Were he to miss the game, PSU would miss his 14 points per game, but there would be some recouping from his backup. Illinois did not have any injuries to report.
  4. Examine the home advantage – Penn State had only lost a single game at home at that point in the season. Meanwhile, Illinois had a losing record on the road (4-5). So, the Fighting Illini had quite the hill to climb in this matchup, simply based upon the home and away splits.
  5. Note recent play – Penn State entered the game on an 8-game winning streak. Two of those wins came against ranked opponents, which helped to propel the Nittany Lions into the top ten of most major rankings. Meanwhile, the Illini seemed to be headed the opposite direction, with 4 straight losses capped by a 15-point loss to Rutgers that saw them fall apart down the stretch in the second half.
  6. Follow the money…or don’t – At the time, multiple sources reported that 70% of bettors were choosing Penn State to cover the 6.5-point spread on the game. In other words, the team from State College was expected to produce a decisive win. In fact, one source reported that the spread on Illinois had stretched to +7 on some books.


Penn State was probably going to win this game, which is our only concern for betting the moneyline. Even with the questionable status of one of its starters, PSU rode into the game on a wave of positivity. The presence of a long winning streak, recent ascension in the rankings, and dominance on their home court all suggested that the Nittany Lions were putting things together.

Meanwhile, things did not look so bright for the Fighting Illini. They coasted into the game having been smashed in New Jersey three days prior, which was the fourth loss in a row.

So, even though the payout looked lousy, there was no reason to assume that a smart bettor would not choose Penn State University to win the game.

Moving forward with handicapping

Of course, we could turn out to be wrong with the Penn State game. Even though all signs point to a decisive win for the Nittany Lions, stranger things have happened in sports. As the saying goes, that’s why they play the games.

The strategy detailed above is meant only as a starting point for the beginning handicapper. As you play more, you will begin to see patterns and strategies that inform your decisions better and make your predictions more accurate. However, there’s no guarantee that handicapping will lead you to the promised land of constant profit. Sports betting, like many things in life, is often a game of successes and failures.

Hopefully, you can approach sports betting with an understanding of where to put your eyes now. Good luck!