How Losers Lose

By Harry Crane

There are a lot of great resources out for learning how to win at sports betting.  This isn’t one of them.

Some of my favorite resources on winning are this article by Matt Buchalter, and Spanky’s Be Better Bettors podcast.

This article is about losing.  Why?

Because knowing how to lose is more important than knowing how to win.  Once you know how to lose, you also know how not to lose.  And not losing is a pre-requisite to winning.  So while “not losing” isn’t the ultimate goal, it’s an important milestone because every subsequent improvement you make puts you over the top.

Even though this article is about losing, it’s not just for losers.  Even if we’re already winners, we can improve our results with a simple formula.

  1. Understand why losing bettors lose.
  2. Avoid doing those things.

Two Kinds of Losing Bettors

Before digging deeper into the process of losing, it’s important to distinguish two kinds of losing bettors: those who should be losing (a should-be loser) and those who shouldn’t be losing (a would-be winner).

The Should-Be Loser

Yes, some – actually most – bettors deserve to lose. Not because they were born unlucky or the world is turned against them, but because they either don’t have or aren’t using the skills needed to win.  For a non-sports betting related example, take blackjack.  A blackjack player who doesn’t know basic strategy deserves to lose: he’s playing a sub-optimal strategy in a game in which he has a negative edge under optimal conditions.  The sports betting equivalent of this is betting without a clear understanding of your edge or any well-defined process for executing.

The Would-Be Winner

On the other hand, there are bettors who should be winning but aren’t.  They would be winners if not for some critical mistakes.

The equivalent in blackjack is a player who has mastered basic strategy and is an expert card counter, but still loses money because of mistakes that offset their advantage. They may play perfectly for 8 straight hours grinding their +1% advantage, but grow frustrated and fatigued during losing sessions. Instead of quitting, they increase their bet unit by 5 times and play at a -1% disadvantage for the remaining couple hours in their session.  Just like that, they’ve turned a solid advantage of 1% into an overall disadvantage of -0.2%.    The same kind of thing happens to would-be winning sports bettors.  Below are some reasons why.

8 reasons why losers lose

Reason #1: They’re not trying to win.

Without a doubt, the #1 reason most bettors lose is because they’re not trying to win.  They want to win, but they’re not really trying to win.  They bet for fun. They bet on their favorite team. They bet on the game that’s on TV.  They bet because they have a good feeling.

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with betting for these reasons. But anyone who does bet this way simply isn’t trying to win.  So they shouldn’t be surprised when they lose.

Reason #2: They lie to themselves.

A bettor bets all 10 games on an NBA slate.  They go 5-5 betting $110 at -110 ($110 to win $100) against the spread on each game.  The next day their buddy asks how they did the night before, to which they reply: “Broke even”.

That’s a lie. They bet $1,100 and lost $50.  It doesn’t sound like much.  It might even feel like breaking even.  But it’s not. 

Over time, these lies compound.  Psychologically, we tend to remember our wins a bit better than our losses.  This gives us an inflated opinion of our performance, which in turn leads us to incorrectly believe that we’re either already winning or we’re “on the cusp”.  Because we wrongly think our process is working, we’re likely to keep doing it, and we continue the cycle of losing and lying to ourselves about it.

Reason #3: Excuses, excuses.

The same psychological bias that makes us remember wins and forget losses also causes us to be delusional about the reasons for our wins and losses.  We tend to attribute winning streaks to skill and losing streaks to luck.  When we lose, we can explain how things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to: the starting pitcher got injured, the coach should have gone for it on 4th down, we got unlucky on a buzzer beater, etc.  These are all excuses to justify why certain losses don’t really “count”.  Trust me, they count.  It all counts.

Reason #4: No discipline.

Our approach is only as sound as our commitment to execute it, through good times and bad. Finding a solid strategy is an important step.  Having the discipline to execute the strategy is another challenge altogether.  A technically sound approach that we can’t commit to (for psychological, financial or other reasons) isn’t a sound approach overall.  

The would-be winning blackjack player in the previous section grinds an edge for 8 hours only to throw it all away with undisciplined play in his last couple hours.  The would-be winning sports bettor does the same thing when he spends weeks methodically picking his spots, betting within reasonable bankroll limitations, but grows frustrated after a break-even or losing month and tries to get it all back with a few big bets.

Reason #5: They don’t keep records.

Ask any bettor how much they’ve won or lost over the last week, month, or year.  Answers will vary, but the most common answer you’ll probably hear is, “I’m about even.”  (See Reason #2). (Believe me. They’re not even – and it’s not even close.). The truth is, most bettors have no idea how much they’ve won or lost, because they don’t keep records.  

It sounds mindlessly simple: Every time you place a bet, just write it down.  It’s easy to do for a day or two, maybe even a week.  If you start out on a nice winning streak, it might even be easy for a month or two.  But the minute you start losing, the harder it becomes.  And the thing is: everyone has losing streaks. Even the biggest winners.

Aside from the fact that you won’t know your profits and losses without accurate records, the practice of record keeping instills discipline that many bettors lack (Reason #4), it prevents us from making excuses (Reason #3) and lying to ourselves (Reason #2), and it forces us to care about winning (Reason #1).  Perhaps for this reason, keeping records is almost always cited by professionals as the #1 thing every bettor absolutely must do.

Reason #6: They don’t respect the market.

Suppose we log into our account to look at tonight’s MLB offerings.  Based on our analysis, we expected the Yankees to be a -200 favorite but we find they’re being offered at +150.  What should we do?

We quickly deposit as much money as possible to lock up the +150 before the market adjusts the price closer to where it should be.

Wrong answer.

The fact that the market disagrees with our expectations by so much should be a red flag that our original assessment is very, very wrong. The same goes for much smaller disagreements between our expectations and the market.  When the market disagrees with us, it usually indicates that we’re missing something.  The ability to detect when the disagreement is in our favor – the market is missing something – or not – the market knows something we don’t – is perhaps the most important, and also most difficult, aspect of winning betting to master.

Reason #7: They can’t explain what their edge is.

If you expect to win, you should be able to explain why you’re a winner. 

In an earlier article on Finding an Edge and Keeping It, I discuss the main ways to get an edge betting sports: having better information, better execution, or better modeling than the other bettors.  

Right now, ask yourself: where do I get my edge?  Be specific.  Acceptable answers could be:

  • Because I know about NFL injury information before anyone else.
  • Because I can act on line changes faster than certain books.
  • Because I have a better College Basketball model than anyone else in the market.

Forget about whether you’re correct in any of the above assessments.  Having a reason for why you expect to win is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for winning.  Winning doesn’t happen by accident. If you don’t know why you should be winning, then how can you expect to win?

Remember Reason #2: Don’t lie to yourself.  If you’ve never considered this question before or can’t give a clear answer, then you probably don’t have an edge. That’s OK.  Actually, it’s great.  Just by realizing this, you’re in a much better position to stop losing — and that’s the first step to winning.

Reason #8: They don’t play to their strengths.

In today’s marketplace, every bettor can win, but very few do.  In addition to all the reasons given above, the nail in the coffin is not playing to our strengths.  Suppose you’re a diehard Chicago Blackhawks fan.  You’re obsessed with the team.  You listen to Chicago sports radio 6 hours a day, you’ve read every article ever written about them; you sit center ice at every game.  Your best friend drives the Zamboni. Chances are that you know more about the Blackhawks than just about every other bettor and bookmaker out there. 

You’ve found your edge (Reason #7).  You definitely know enough to make money by betting on Blackhawks games.  But what’s the problem?

Maybe you always bet on the Blackhawks.  They’re your team.  It’s bad juju to bet against them.  It’s a betrayal.  (You’re not trying to win; see Reason #1)

Maybe you don’t just bet on Blackhawks games.  You bet on every NHL game. Every night.  And during the summer, you get bored and you bet on Cubs games too.  (No discipline; see Reason #4)

But you say: only bet Blackhawks games?  That’s at most 81 games a year.  That’s not scalable. In this particular case, you’re right, but that’s where your edge is in this example.  You need to ask yourself, would you rather bet less often and be a winner at the end of year, or bet more often and lose money?  

The principle applies much more generally.  All bettors have strengths and weaknesses.  Everyone’s edge has a limitation to scaling.  There are WNBA specialists, NFL player props specialists, and MLB futures specialists.

There are two general ways to increase profit: we can either expand our strengths or eliminate our weaknesses.  Ideally, we would do both.  But if we’re already strong in one area, the easiest way to improve is by honing our strengths and eliminating our weaknesses as much as possible.

Am I still a loser?

Be honest. How many of the above mistakes are you guilty of?

I hope you didn’t say zero.  If you did, then either (i) you’re not being honest with yourself (violation of Reason #2) or (ii) you have no easy ways to improve.

If you’ve admitted to yourself of being guilty of one or more of the above mistakes, then congratulations.  

First, you’ve taken the first step toward recovery: admitting there’s a problem.

Second, you’ve identified an immediate step you can take to become a smaller loser (or hopefully a bigger winner).

There’s no shame in losing.  But there is shame in being a loser.  Almost every professional bettor started out by losing. Many went broke multiple times before finding success.  With the right mindset, losing is just a temporary state of affairs.

Whether you’re a should-be loser or would-be winner, or a proven winner, there is no easier way to improve your game than by limiting or eliminating the above mistakes.

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