Every Sunday evening during football season, usually around 5:30 or so, the sportsbook at the Stardust Casino puts up the first lines for the following week's games. These numbers are hung by experts who have every resource available to them in order to make a line that limits their liability and maximizes their profit making opportunities. These are virgin numbers, untainted by the public's hand, and they are a thing of beauty. Every game I handicap is influenced by these virgin numbers - within them lie one of the greatest secrets of sportsbetting.
With the success of offshore sportsbooks, the Stardust no longer offers the first lines available. In fact, for most sports (exception: football) there is an "Overnight Line", prepared for the morning newspapers, such as the Glantz-Culver line or the Sheridan line in USA Today. These lines are based primarily on power ratings - computerized calculations of teams relative current strengths. They serve as an estimate of around where the line should open, but are not an accurate predictor of where the line actually will open, and as such, I do not consider these lines in my handicapping.
In the past few years, the next lines to come out have been the offshores, with CRIS (Costa Rican International Sports) leading the way. These lines come out just as the late afternoon games are finishing on Sunday nights for football, and by the time the West Coast games are finishing in basketball. I watch where these lines open, and how they move ONLY in relation to the Stardust line. The 'Dust sees these early numbers, and if they set their virgin numbers in a way that contrasts with the offshore early moves, that is important!! Other Vegas casinos have also begun setting lines before the Stardust, most notably the Imperial Palace and the MGM, but again, I place relatively little emphasis on these sets of lines.
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When the Stardust hangs their opening numbers, we are viewing Joe Lupo (the sportsbook director) and his staff's opinion. Conventional wisdom posits that lines are set to create equal action on both sides, thus ensuring a small profit for the books (4.54% or $10 on every $220 wagered). In reality, this does not happen more often than not. Thus equal action is mostly a myth. In fact, there are several other possibilities besides equal action that the books are trying to achieve with their opening numbers (all examples used relate to football). Book wants to limit action on the game - opening number makes it virtually unbettable for either side. For example, two low scoring teams outdoors in November and the total opens at 33 - no way to take the over, but the under is too low to take either.
Book feels that this is a game that they can win money - line is positioned to draw one way action - the wrong way (also called a 'trap' line). For example, the Jan 1, 2000 Cotton Bowl, where Texas opened a 6.5 point favorite over Arkansas, and was bet up to -8 (extreme one way action) resulted in a 21 point outright win for the underdog.
Book unsure which way the line is going to move, so they set a line where their potential liability is minimized. For example, a line set at -5 can move a full point in either direction without serious danger of running into a key number (football games finish with a 4 or 6 point differential much more often than they do on 5)
As a handicapper, I must respect the guy I'm trying to beat - the bookmaker. I must know my enemy and try to think as he thinks. These people are experts with many years of experience making a profit for their employers (those that fail to make a profit become ex-linesmakers fairly quickly). No one has access to more information than these individuals. They know what teams the money is coming in on every game, and which teams are not taking much money at all. They know which injuries will affect the game's result and who can be replaced by a capable backup. They certainly recognize the fundamental and situational aspects of handicapping - things like run defense and revenge matchups. In short, we must use their knowledge to our advantage if we have any intention of winning more bets than we lose.
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