How to Be a Winning Sports Bettor if You're Not Good with Numbers

If you're like me, you're not great with numbers.

Oh sure, I can stick to a budget, and I've learned to maintain a savings account. I can usually calculate the right amount of change I'm supposed to get at fast food restaurants. But I'm no mathematician.

Gambling is really just applied mathematics. It's easy for the mathematically-inclined to gain an advantage. What can you do when math isn't your forte?

The tips below are designed to help the math-naïve beat the book with consistency. I can't promise that you'll retire and become a professional bettor just by following the tips below, but I can promise that you'll bet with more confidence and have an easier time of finding +EV bets.

Stick to What You DO Know

Instead of beating yourself up for not being good with numbers, focus on your strengths. Maybe you've been a fan of the NFL for twenty-five years – you can use that experience to find smart wagers. It's not uncommon for MLB fans to have an encyclopedic knowledge of lineups – that's definitely a skill that translates to sports betting success.

You don't have to be a numbers wizard to gain an advantage in sports betting. Yes, all gambling is math, but sports betting includes a number of different aspects to go along with hard numbers. In sports betting, you contend with influences like bye weeks, player ratings, underdog vs. favorite, and injuries. Learn a ton about any of those factors and you've found your edge.

The trick is to discover your unique angle. Yes, it's a shame that you aren't a number-cruncher, but there's no substitute for a lifetime of NBA fandom when it comes time to make smart basketball picks. Once you've found the thing that gives you your edge, work on that thing, and forget about crunching numbers.

Don't Get Any Bright Ideas

A crude way to phrase this piece of advice is: "Keep it simple, stupid." If you're not a numbers guy, you'd be better off trusting other people to do the work for you. I wouldn't trust myself to make a statistical analysis of underdog betting value in the NFL, but I'd certainly trust someone with a degree in higher math. In other words, don't get any bright ideas about gambling math if you aren't good with figures.

I have a buddy who's a sports bettor and just loves mathematics. He's one of these weird guys that memorized pi to a couple-dozen digits and prefers to stay in a prime-numbered hotel room. When he tells me about a trend, I trust it. For example, his best piece of NFL betting advice was almost entirely over my head. He said I should back any home favorite (between three and seven points) that's playing a team with a losing record ONLY when the favorite is coming off two straight road wins. Sure enough, the year he gave me that advice, every team in that position beat the spread. That's a 100% winning rate that I certainly wouldn't have figured out on my own.

You don't have to have a crazy math genius friend to take advantage of advice from smarter bettors. I've learned more from forum posters over the years than anyone else. Some of the best NBA betting advice I've ever heard came straight from a message board post. A much-smarter bettor discovered a simple trend and shared it with the board. He said you should back any home underdog (+6 or more) that's coming off a win on the road. Following that trend last season, you'd have a win rate of about 60%. That's a guaranteed profit, and I didn't need to pull out my calculator to do it.

Don't try to be a genius. Learn how to recognize genius, and follow its advice.

Keep a Clear Head

I'm not here to tell you how to run your personal life. You can drink until the cows come home, sleep, and go back out again if you want. I don't recommend it, but it's your liver to ruin.

Where I do gain some authority is when you start betting on sports under the influence. Physician-prescribed medication aside, the best way to bet on sports is sober. I know, it's hard to resist the appeal of the ice-cold beer in your fridge, but if you want to be a winning sports bettor (and you're already at a disadvantage because you're bad at math), you should try to keep a clear head while researching and placing your bets.

Alcohol and drugs aren't the only things that can cloud your judgement, either. Strong emotions are just as deadly to a sports bettor's bottom line as painkillers and wine. Sleep deprivation is another danger – ever tried to make a big life decision after a 72-hour period of very little rest?

Any number of factors can cloud your head and ruin your advantage. Remember, as a guy that can't do math, you're at a disadvantage. Clouding your judgement further puts the sportsbook deeper in your pocket.

Compare Odds at Different Books

Okay, I know, this isn't exactly unique advice. Most sports betting advice articles cover this one to death. It should be obvious, but I'll say it again for the benefit of newcomers to the hobby – books offer different odds on the same game. Let's say you were going to take the Dallas Cowboys -5.5 against New Orleans, but you see that they're available -5 at another book. You'd take the -5, right?

Here's an idiot's guide to finding different odds:

Open and maintain a few different online sportsbook accounts. You can't take the Cowboys at -5 at the other book if you don't have money in an account there.

Check the odds at the sites you've joined before you place any bet. It won't help you at all if you find better odds after you've already taken Dallas at -5.5.

Keep records of which books had the better line. Some books are ideal for different sports. You may be able to identify a trend for future seasons – or identify a book that consistently provides a better line.

Take an Online Math Class

As a final option, you can follow all of the tips above to the letter and then take a class to improve your math skills, anyway. After all, the above tips are good strategy even if you ARE good at math. So why not go ahead and improve your skill with numbers while you're at it?

We live in the Golden Age of the Internet. You can learn just about anything you want online. Here's a breakdown of three online math courses and training that I think would be perfect for sports bettors:

Probability & Statistics from Khan Academy – This class is totally-free, part of the non-profit Khan Academy's series of free online classes. This class covers independent and dependent events, probability, statistical studies, and probability distribution – all things that sports bettors think about on a daily basis. If you ignore every other piece of advice on this list, you have to give this course a shot.

Introduction to Probability & Statistics from MIT – When you want a good education in math, you go to the best, right? This course, part of MIT's Open Courseware program, which presents actual MIT courses from the past in a free online format. Okay, so this one's a bit tougher than the Khan Academy class. Rise to the occasion and give it a shot. All the lessons are highly-applicable to sports betting strategy.

Foundations of Real-World Math from Saylor Academy – The final free math course I'd recommend to sports bettors bad at numbers is this fundamentals class from Saylor Academy. It's designed for people who are "bad at math," and it covers the various real-world applications of basic mathematical concepts. I clicked through the course just now and saw several ways that this coursework would apply directly to wagering on sports. You'll learn basic budgeting and financial principles that can help you shore up your bankroll, too.


Mathematically-speaking, sports bettors have to win more than 52.4% of the time in order to break even. That number takes the book's juice into account. If you can win 52.5% of your wagers, you're a winning sports bettor. Any record that ensures a profit is a winning record. Taking money away from the sportsbook is gratifying, but it also protects your bankroll for next season. If you follow the above tips, you can improve your chances of turning a profit without crunching a ton of numbers.