If you wander around a live tournament poker room, you’ll see a lot of players hunched over iPads watching football or tennis matches, horse races or athletics meets, in between playing their hands.
Of course, plenty of them are just ardent sports fans, keen to follow elite competition in any pursuit. But often these poker players are following the sports so closely because they have a personal investment in them, likely a significant wager on the outcome that could earn them their poker buy-in back, and then some.
There is a close and sometimes mutually dependent link between sports betting and poker. If you have the kind of mind that enjoys competition on the felt, there’s a high chance you like sports, and sports betting, too. And it’s also true that various poker strategies and tips come in useful when considering sports betting, and vice versa.
Here’s a quick look at some of the poker strategies that can be employed in sports betting, and how some of the methods used by sports bettors can help at the poker tables:
1. Bankroll management
You can’t join a poker game without the buy-in, just like you can’t place a bet without a stake. It simply cannot be stressed often nor loudly enough that both poker players and sports bettors need to have good bankroll management. It’s vital, vital, vital that you are never betting with money you can’t afford to lose.
On the one hand, this is simply the inviolable central mantra of responsible gaming. And more than that: it’s the only way for you to be able to make the right decisions. You need to know that when you’re placing your bet, or playing your hand, you’re doing so without your thought process being compromised by fears that you can’t afford to lose, or because you are chasing losses and seeking a big hit.
Whether you’re a poker player or a sports bettor, you should keep records and never be anything less than 100 percent honest with yourself. You need to manage your bankroll extremely carefully, and be prepared to gamble with only a small percentage of it at any one time. This way, you are still in the game even if things go wrong.
Elite poker players will typically only play a tournament when they are investing no more than 1 percent of their total bankroll in the buy-in. A sports bettor’s exposure in a single game should probably be even less.
2. Dealing with variance
There’s a fairly strong argument that the single most appealing aspect of any competitive pursuit is the uncertainty that underpins it. On any given day, anything can happen: rank outsiders win league titles; nailed on winners stumble and fall; unbeatable champions get floored by no-hopers.
It all makes for sensational entertainment, but it’s terrifying if you’re a sports bettor. Those kinds of upsets can be extremely costly, especially if you’ve staked everything on a seeming certainty.
If you’re a poker player, however, you know all about this kind of thing. You can’t have been playing the game very long if you’ve never seen aces cracked by kings, or a flopped flush defeated by a runner-runner full house. One out is often all anybody needs to beat your flopped set, and sometimes you’ll see a ridiculous out-draw it four times in a row.
Poker players simply know that this kind of thing just happens. You have no choice but to accept it, put it behind you and get on with the next hand. The more you play poker, the better you get at coping with the variance inherent in the game — and sports bettors need to learn to handle variance too. Sometimes there’s simply nothing you can do but shake your head ruefully, lick your wounds, and wait for the next match to come along.
3. Exploiting edges
Universally regarded as one of the world’s most successful sports bettors, Haralabos “Bob” Voulgaris told ESPN Magazine in 2013 that he “routinely wagered a million dollars in a single day of NBA games”. He had “an unholy winning percentage that approached 70 percent”, which made him a fortune and ultimately landed him a job as director of quantitive research and development at the Dallas Mavericks.
In the same article, the writer Scott Eden summarised Voulgaris’s talents: “In betting parlance, the man could suss out an edge.” Specifically, Voulgaris noted how most bookmakers erred in calculating likely points totals in the second half of basketball matches, and exploited it. Though the bookmakers eventually noticed their leak (largely thanks to Voulgaris continually taking them to the cleaners), Voulgaris’ had already built an enormous bankroll.
Elite poker players also talk frequently about looking for an edge — in other words a way in they can turn the odds in their favour and return a reliable profit with the minimum risk. Sometimes this is done at a macro level — examining a tournament or cash game field, for instance, and accurately determining an average skill set lower than the player’s own. Other times, “sussing out an edge” in poker means correctly identifying when your own hand is better than an opponent’s range. That’s the time to get the chips in.
There’s great skill in sussing out an edge, particularly when playing against others who are probably trying to do the same. But it’s no surprise that Voulgaris is also an elite level poker player, who favours the nosebleed end of the cash game and tournament schedules. Because that’s the other thing about spotting edges: you’ve also got to make the most of them.
4. Finding value
In order to win as a sports bettor, particularly in the world of fixed odds betting, you need to get the better of the bookmakers and to identify the occasions on which they make a mistake. In other words, you need to find the value in the markets. Poker players search for value all the time too.
In its most basic terms in sports betting, bookmakers come up with odds about an event happening — a horse winning a race, a soccer game finishing 2-1, etc. — that they think are attractive enough for people to be tempted to place a bet on, but which really do not reflect the true probability. As a good bettor, you need to spot the times when you don’t agree with their assessment.
Let’s say the bookmakers price a horse at 10 to 1 to win a race. It means, in crudest terms, that if the horse ran the race 10 times and won the race once, everybody would break even. However, if you think the horse would win the race more often than once in ten times, then this is a good bet for you. You need to back the horse. If, however, you don’t think this horse has a chance of winning if the race was run 20 times, then this is a poor bet. There’s no value in it.
Poker players seek value all the time, and calculate pot odds to determine whether there is value in continuing in a pot. They look at their hand, watch their opponents’ betting action and try to calculate what hand they’re up against. And then they figure out whether they’re getting the right price (even the terminology is the same) to take the hand to showdown. Again using a very crude example, if you have the nut flush draw on the turn, and suspect your opponent has top pair, you have nine outs to hit the winner on the river. That’s a nine in 46 chance (46 being the number of cards that are unknown). That’s about a five to one chance. If the pot stands to make you more than five times your money, then it’s good value to call. If you do this an infinite number of times, you’ll come out ahead in the long run.
The examples above are exceptionally basic, and there are usually many more factors influencing calculations and decisions. But the concept beneath good sports bets and good plays in poker are often the same: if there’s value there, do it.
5. Changing gears
Sometimes things just go well. And sometimes things just go badly. And there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to change it. In both sports betting and poker, you need to be able to make the most of things when everything seems to be going in your favour, and to minimise any losses you might incur when things aren’t going to plan. There are also times when you need to be aggressive and build up a big pot, while other times you’ll need to be a lot more passive and avoid major confrontations. Poker players and sports bettors need to hone the skills that allow them to detect when the time is right for either.
In other words, they know when to change gears.
In poker, players with big stacks learn to be aggressive around the tournament bubble. They can become bullies and put vulnerable opponents under pressure. More broadly, poker players also build up their bankrolls and energy to take their biggest shots during the biggest festivals — the WSOP or an EPT event — when there’s a lot of action and perhaps a softer field than normal. If the table draw suddenly puts you alongside seven rookies, it’s time to make hay. Conversely, if it’s champions and sharks in every seat but yours, best just lie low for a while.
Some days, sports bettors will see great bets available across the board, and these are the times to go big. On other days, there will be slim pickings and scant value, which is when it’s time to shut up the shop and take it easy. It’s not necessary to bet a certain amount every day if the value isn’t there. All of this is also why it’s important to have good bankroll management skills: to seize on these opportunities when they are present, and to ride out the fallow times.
6. Avoiding emotional investments
Sports fans have their favourite teams. Poker players have their favourite hands. But here’s the thing: if you want to be successful in either pursuit, you have to overcome your emotions and ignore bets that are based on anything other than smart and rational reasoning.
It may be the case that you won a huge pot with K♣6♣ at the beginning of your poker career, and every time you get dealt it, you just want to get your chips in again. But you’re going to lose with it far more often than you’ll win, particularly if it’s superstition alone that is fuelling your desire to stick with it. Poker players seem to be able to overcome “favourite hand” syndrome pretty quickly as it’s seen to be obviously irrational. If only sports fans could do the same.
The love of sports teams and athletes tends to be much deeper ingrained and is therefore much harder to surrender. But ignoring the odds and backing teams just because you want them to win (or, indeed, if you want them to lose) is a surefire way to the poor house.
You need to put emotions aside. This is business.
Four poker players who are sports bettors (or sports bettors who are poker players)
Tony Bloom — The Brighton-based Brit has $3.5 million in documented live poker earnings, but that is dwarfed by his profits from sports betting. Described by the New York Times as one the world’s “most prominent soccer gamblers”, Bloom is the controller of a sports betting syndicate that has made millions — enough for him to buy Brighton & Hove Albion football club and steer it to the Premier League.
Andrew Pantling — A former EPT Grand Final runner up, and recent SCOOP champion, Andrew Pantling has always made heaps of money from playing poker. But his interest in sports betting arguably trumps it, and Pantling is the CEO of Matchbook.com, and online sports book.
James Holzhauer — He plays poker and he bets on sports, but James Holzhauer is now better known for his record-breaking appearance on the TV show Jeopardy!, on which he won $1.69 million. However, he was introduced on the show as a professional sports bettor, and has spoken at length of how his skills analysing betting markets helped him crush the game show. And before all that, he got his start by playing online poker in college
Phil Ivey — If it moves, Phil Ivey will bet on it, and the poker legend is well known as a heavy investor at the sports book too. So much so that one durable story centres on a bet Ivey placed on the Seattle Seahawks to win the Super Bowl in 2015, which unravelled when Malcolm Butler of the New England Patriots intercepted a pass on his own goal-line in the fourth quarter, securing victory for the east coast team. Ivey just happened to win the Aussie Millions Super High Roller event on the same day, banking AUD $2.2 million, but said he was still down on the weekend because of the football bet.