Covering the spread

A sports gambling concept usually meaning to lose, but not as badly as expected.

The point spread is initially set at whatever the bookmaker expects the margin of victory to be, and then fluctuates based on the course of betting before the game (the line is set for the express purpose of having half of the betting public bet one way, and the other half the other). For example, I might see a college football betting lines table in my local paper, partially reproduced below:

Favorite        Points      Underdog
VIRGINIA TECH......7........Syracuse
         (at Jacksonville, FL)
Wake Forest........2............DUKE
The first line shows that VT is playing at home (ALL CAPS designates this) and is favored by 7 points over 'Cuse. The line can be referred to as "Tech by 7", "Tech minus 7", or "Cuse plus 7". This means that unless you bet straight up (winner of the game, no questions asked), if you take VT, the Hokies' score must be more than 7 better than the Orangemen for you to win your bet; if you take Syracuse, you win as long as Syracuse doesn't lose by 7 or more. (If VT actually does win by 7, both sides keep their money.) If Tech were to win by 3, Syracuse can be said to have "covered the spread."

It's not an exact term. Some will say that a team covered the spread when they did in fact win the game -- most of the time this is an expression of shock, as in our above example where if Memphis beat Florida by 3, someone might exclaim that "Memphis not only covered, they actually won!"

Used in sports gambling, the point spread is an attempt by bookies to spread the wagered money evenly between two teams in a particular contest.

Whenever someone places a bet on a sporting event, the bookie always takes a cut of the bet as a fee, think of it like a stockbroker taking a commission. This fee is usually known as the vig (short for “vigorish”), although I was raised calling it “the juice.” It is in the bookie’s best interest to take in as many bets as possible, and to have those bets placed evenly between the two teams playing. If there is too much action on one team, and that team wins, the money the bookie has collected from the losing bets and the vig will not be enough to offset the large amounts of money he has to pay out to the winners, which will obliterate his profits.

The point spread works by adjusting the final score of the game by adding points to the score of the underdogs. Thus, by adding the point spread, a bettor is able to wager on an inferior team and still have a good chance of winning.

Let’s look at the spreads for this week's NFL playoff games:

Favorite        Points        Underdog
St. Louis..........7 ½ .......Carolina
New England........6..........Tennessee
Kansas City........3..........Indianapolis
Philadelphia.......4 ½ .......Green Bay

Now let’s take the first game: The Carolina Panthers are the underdog and are receiving 7 ½ points. If we bet on “Carolina and the points” and they win the game or lose by less than 7 ½ points, then we win our bet. If we bet on St. Louis, they must win by more than 7 ½ points in order to "cover the spread” and for us to win our bet. Since the spread has a ½ point in it, there is no chance of the adjusted score being a tie, which would cause a “push” where all bets are off.

(A little bit of advice from those of us in e2sports – take Indy and the points this weekend.) We were right!

The point spread was invented by a mathematician named Charles K. McNeil while he was a math teacher at a prep school in Connecticut in the 1940s. McNeil grew up in Chicago and learned how to gamble while sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. At that time the bleachers were probably the biggest open-air gambling den in the country, with men even betting on the outcome of every pitch. McNeil became a heavy gambler himself while receiving his mathematics degree at the University of Chicago. He eventually left his teaching job to open his own sports book, where he used his idea of the point spread to entice gamblers to bet on even the most lopsided of games. Soon his invention was copied by almost every other bookie in the country, helping to transform gambling into how it is today.

Thanks Charles!

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