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I Suck at Gambling

Nate Silver’s Grantland-esque website FiveThirtyEight debuted today. It includes an interactive graphic (utilizing seven different predictor variables) featuring every team’s chances to reach every round of March Madness, including their odds of winning it all. How do those odds stack up to the current (as of 11:59 pm Eastern Time) odds given by Sportsbook.com? Best of all, which teams make for the best bets, even if they are unlikely to win the championship, because Vegas is giving them even longer odds than they deserve? Find out below!

Positive Expected Value Bets to Win the NCAA MB Tournament

Team Sportsbook Odds-to-One Break Even Percentage FiveThirtyEight Percent Chance to Win Bet Expected Value
Arizona 8 11.11% 13.00% 1.89%
Villanova 30 3.23% 4.00% 0.77%
Ohio St 75 1.32% 2.00% 0.68%
Creighton 40 2.44% 3.00% 0.56%
Duke 20 4.76% 5.00% 0.24%
Michigan 35 2.78% 3.00% 0.22%
Kentucky 50 1.96% 2.00% 0.04%

For a bet of Arizona’s odds to be profitable (in the long run), it needs to cash 11.11 percent of the time; Nate Silver and his team estimate that the Wildcats’ true odds lie at 13 percent. That gap produces the largest positive expected value in the field. Which teams should you avoid putting money on to go all the way?

Worst Expected Value Bets to Win the NCAA MB Tournament

Michigan St 5.5 15.38% 6.00% -9.38%
Syracuse 18 5.26% 1.00% -4.26%
Iowa St 30 3.23% 1.00% -2.23%
UCLA 35 2.78% 1.00% -1.78%
Florida 5.5 15.38% 14.00% -1.38%
Wisconsin 22 4.35% 3.00% -1.35%
Wichita St 15 6.25% 5.00% -1.25%
Kansas 13 7.14% 6.00% -1.14%

Everyone loves Michigan St, and that is precisely why they are overvalued. The Spartans are good, and it is entirely possible they could win; it is even possible that Silver’s methodology has sold them short, perhaps by not accounting for Tom Izzo. But it is also true that at the five-and-a-half-to-one odds currently offered, the Spartans have to win 15.38 percent of the time for this bet to be profitable. Even if their true probability of a championship is around ten percent, or even 12 percent, it would still not be a good idea to put money on Michigan St. With the fabled winning streaks, Syracuse and Wichita St also make appearances on this list of worst bets in the tournament.

This is not to say that these teams are guaranteed to lose. But if you place bets with a negative expected value, while you may win one or two, over time you are guaranteed not only to lose, but to lose money.

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Last Week: 1-3. Playoffs: 3-4-1. Regular Season: 53-49-3. My Entire Life: 56-53-4.

Lines from Sportsbook.com; home team in CAPS.

Patriots (+5) over BRONCOS

I cannot believe I just did that. That is a dumb pick. It is ridiculous. But then, so is the Pats’ season. This quote from Grantland’s Robert Mays describes the Patriots chances as thus: “I think they can win, but it’s hard for me to imagine how they might win.” Yeah. Agreed.

Actually, no. Be rational, Colin! Peyton Manning in of his best passing attacks ever, against a wounded Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard, the guy who assaulted a police officer the night before the NFL draft?

Patriots (+5) over BRONCOS
BRONCOS (-5) over Patriots

Hmm. That looks better, right?

49ers (+3.5) over SEAHAWKS

Seattle 71 – San Francisco 16. That is the cumulative score of the last two games these teams played in Seattle. As written about before, the “extra” home field advantage of Century Link Field is something of a myth, but home field advantage is certainly a thing. Additionally, my mother informs me that Alaska Airlines is offering early boarding to all passengers sporting Seahawks garb at the gate. Hm. In the end, I just believe in the 49ers. Yes, this could just be Blowout 3.0, but… if the 49ers stay focused and avoid mistakes, they will be in good shape. GO, TEAM, GO!

There are so many wonderful things to gamble on in this world. With the Oscar nominations announced this morning, a lot cleared up in those gambling races. Twelve Years a Slave’s money line is -250, which along with American Hustle at +275 and Gravity at +750 wraps up the favorites. And while perusing such lines, what do you know, there are early money lines out for all 32 teams on Super Bowl XLIX, taking place February 1st, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. Let’s take a look!

Rank Team American Odds Fractional Odds (to One)
1 DEN 600 6
1 SEA 600 6
3 SF 700 7
4 NE 1200 12
5 GB 1500 15
5 NO 1500 15
7 ATL 1800 18
7 CIN 1800 18
9 CAR 2000 20
10 ARI 2500 25
10 CHI 2500 25
10 KC 2500 25
10 IND 2500 25
10 PHI 2500 25
15 BAL 3000 30
15 DAL 3000 30
15 DET 3000 30
15 HOU 3000 30
15 NYG 3000 30
15 PIT 3000 30
15 SD 3000 30
15 STL 3000 30
15 WAS 3000 30
24 MIA 4000 40
24 TB 4000 40
24 TEN 4000 40
27 NYJ 6000 60
27 BUF 6000 60
27 CLE 6000 60
27 MIN 6000 60
31 JAC 10000 100
31 OAK 10000 100

Funny how none of the bottom teams have a clear guy at quarterback yet. Who might be worth putting some money on?

The New England Patriots, +1200

This team is playing in the AFC championship game this Sunday. How could they be underrated? Well, they have endured one of the more tortured campaigns in recent memory with injury after injury, almost none of their ten best players from a year ago are still playing, and with Bill Belichick at the reins and Tom Brady in the huddle they are still playing in the freaking AFC championship this Sunday.

The counter argument here is that Patriots won one and a half more games than they “should” have this season,1 and that the player I mentioned in the previous paragraph will be 37 years old. Still, with the Pats basically making the playoffs every year, at 12-1 it might not be crazy.

The Green Bay Packers, +1500

By some measures, the Packers actually suffered more bad injury luck than the Patriots this season. Oh, and also by conventional measures: Aaron Rodgers missed two months and Clay Matthews was out for good by the time the playoffs came round. Which the Packers still made; which they went out of on the last play of the game, by three points, to the 49ers, currently headed to their third straight NFC championship game. The Packers can play with the very best. Aaron Rodgers probably is the very best.

The NFC North will likely be a tougher beat than the AFC East, however. And the Packers’ coaches, particularly Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers, do not seem to be in quite the same class as the league’s best. Still, a better than a one in sixteen chance that the Packers win it all seems likely.

The New Orleans Saints, +1500

Drew Brees. Also though stuck in the six seed this season, the Saints were a couple of games away (read: road losses to the Jets and the Patriots) from better playoff positioning.

But, you know, they still have to play eight road games next season, so…

The Atlanta Falcons, +1800

The best bet of the bunch? Maybe. If not, it will be the next one. There is a lot to like about the Falcons, who lost Matt Ryan’s top weapons on offense (like seriously, the wide receivers and the running backs), and eventually resorted to starting only high school seniors on defense, or something, I forget. But that Matt Ryan! Matt Ryan has been one of Pro Football Focus’ top five quarterbacks four of his six seasons in the league. Among the league’s elite quarterbacks, his team is getting the worst odds (which is to say, the best odds). Oh yeah, and the Falcons have the sixth pick in the draft.

The main downside here is the NFC South. The Falcons will have tough competition next year. In fact, the Panthers at +2000 might be more compelling than these featured teams. The Panthers might be so compelling that one might be compelled to write a post just about them in the near-ish future. (HINT: One such person might be me.)

The Houston Texans, +3000

“Houston, we have a quarterback.” These words must be realized in order for Houston to win it all. But the Texans do not need the best quarterback, they just need a starting NFL quarterback. They have the number one pick in the draft. But yeah, Manziel or Bridgewater, rookie quarterbacks cannot win the Super Bowl, etc.2 But what if they trade that pick for an established quarterback (and that team’s first rounder, or some later round picks or whatever)? Philip Rivers will turn 33 in December of next season. Michael Vick will turn 34 in June, and apparently has lost his job to Nick Foles. Eli Manning just turned 33. Ben Roethlisberger turns 32 in March.3

Remember, Houston won a playoff game in each of the previous two seasons. They were the unluckiest team in the NFL this season, winning two fewer games than their net point total suggests they should have. Also, they likely adjusted their priorities when it became clear they would not make the playoffs. J.J. Watt and Andre Johnson have been among the very, very best at their respective positions since they entered the league. The toughest competition for their division will likely come from the Colts. They should have an easier schedule after finishing last in the league. They are currently 30-1. Remember this day, sports fans. Remember this.


  1. According to football’s Pythagorean theorem, they outperformed by 1.5 wins. 
  2. There is actually no rule that says that a rookie quarterback cannot win the Super Bowl. Keep that in mind. 
  3. Confession: All I want to do now is get in a room with Rick Smith, Houston’s general manager, and talk about this. Also, how crazy would this be: the number one pick for RGIII? Tragically, Washington already gave their next 4,500 draft picks to the Rams, and without anything else to work with not even I will grant this feasibility, but… damn. 

Here are the current odds for each of the four remaining teams to win the Super Bowl (lines from Sportsbook.com), along with Football Outsiders estimate of their chances. With Carolina out, New England leads the way with the most potential value.

Team American Odds Odds To One Break Even FO Chance Expected Payout Rank
NE 480 4.8 17.24% 22.40% 5.16% 1
SEA 190 1.9 34.48% 34.80% 0.32% 2
DEN 200 2 33.33% 24.70% -8.63% 3
SF 260 2.6 27.78% 18.10% -9.68% 4

The New England figures should clearly be discounted, because they have just had so, so, so many injuries, no Rob Gronkowski, no defensive front seven, no perpetually healthy wide receivers or running backs, and yet… they only need to win two more games. Stranger things have happened. And with Denver’s best defensive player, Von Miller, out for the season, and cornerback Chris Harris, Pro Football Focus‘ ninth-best corner (of 110, with a 10.9 grade), now out for the season, that first game might not be too crazy? Look at the conference championship odds:

Team American Odds Odds To One Break Even FO Chance Expected Payout Rank
NE 175 1.75 36.36% 46.00% 9.64% 1
SEA 57.14 0.5714 63.64% 62.80% -0.84% 2
SF 155 1.55 39.22% 37.20% -2.02% 3
DEN 48.78 0.4878 67.21% 54.00% -13.21% 4

Look at New England! Football Outsiders estimates that betting them straight up this weekend will win nearly 10 percent more than it must to break even. Their calculations (using weighted DVOA) may not be 100 percent accurate, especially with regard to injuries, but given that Denver’s injuries are more recent, their predictions could quite possibly be overstating Denver’s chances. Throwing a little money at the New England money line might not be the craziest of ideas.

Last Week: 2-1-1. Regular Season: 53-49-3. My Entire Life: 55-50-4

Lines from Sportsbook.com; home team in CAPS.

Saints (+7.5) over SEAHAWKS

I have many theories for this one, mostly hinging on the idea that losing 34-7 is nearly the worst end of the spectrum for the Saints, and there could be some #regression. The Seahawks always seem to force some early turnovers in games like this; they did against the Saints in Week 13, and they did in their blowouts of the 49ers the last two times they went to Seattle. But forcing turnovers, despite the skill involved, requires some luck as well. Since 2008, 29 teams have gone plus-eight or better in turnover differential in the regular season, averaging at least plus-0.5 per game. In the playoffs, 23 of those teams saw this rate decline, 17 by a net turnover per game or more, down to a negative turnover differential in the playoffs. Only 14 of those 29 teams actually won a playoff game. Seattle led the league this season at plus-20. Maybe they will keep it up…but more likely they will not.

Colts (+7) over PATRIOTS

Quote from Bill SimmonsWeek 17 Column on Grantland:

Quick note on the Pats: Their best 12 players in April were Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, Aaron Hernandez, Logan Mankins, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty, Shane Vereen and Rob Ninkovich in some order. Only four of them finished the Baltimore game last week; six aren’t coming back. As fellow Pats fan Jay Jaroch points out, “We had four guys starting for us in Baltimore — [Sealver] Siliga, Chris Jones, [Matthew] Mulligan, and [Josh] Kline — who were signed off the street. Not rookie free agents, not guys signed off some other team’s practice squad. Four dudes who were signed off their couch.”

Not included in Simmons’ list was Brandon Spikes, Pro Football Focus‘ sixth-best graded inside linebacker this season (among 55 who have played 25 percent or more of their teams’ snaps), who, really, do I even need to say what happened to Spikes? Ironically, most of the Pats’ defensive losses (Wilfork, Kelly, Spikes) affect their run defense, and the Colts are terrible at running the ball, but still, is it not a miracle that New England somehow got the two seed in the first place? And they could somehow win because the Colts really are not very good? Ridiculous.

49ers (-1.5) over PANTHERS

…(takes breath to say someth–)…

BRONCOS (-9.5) over Chargers

Yup! I just did that. I also took the Chargers at +10.5 when they won outright in Denver in Week 15. AND now the Broncos are without Von Miller. So this is crazy. The Chargers defense is 25th in weighted DVOA. The Broncos offense is first. I have no clue if San Diego’s prior defensive success is replicable, but I am guessing that no, it is not.

Well…I am really excited to watch football tomorrow. Playoffs!

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