How Sports Betting Works – A Complete Guide

By Randy Ray in Sports
| Last Updated On July 21, 2022 at 3:58 pm
A Guide to Understanding Sports Betting

Wagering is almost as old as man. You can find places in the Bible where it talks about casting lots, which is a form of gambling.

No one knows for sure when the first bet was made on a sporting event, but the odds are that it was made soon after sports were invented.

If you want to learn how sports betting works and how to get started placing bets you’ve come to the right place.

Here’s what you’re going to learn on this page to help with understanding sports betting.

  • How to place bets
  • How betting works
  • What sports betting is
  • The different types of popular sports bets
  • Where to place bets
  • How the sportsbooks make money

Where to Place Bets


The main places you can place bets are in a land based sportsbook or at online betting sites. The other options are using a bookie or placing bets with other people you know.

Land based sportsbooks are available in many parts of the world. But sports betting is illegal in many areas as well. Some places the book is in a casino and in others the book is a standalone business.

Online books are available anywhere you can access the internet, but they’re also illegal in some parts of the world. Even where sports betting is clearly illegal most people can find an online business willing to take their bets.

You should always learn about the sports betting laws where you live before placing sports bets.


Bookies are individuals who take sports bets and in most areas, they’re operating outside the law. In many areas the authorities ignore bookies, but if you place bets with an illegal bookie understand that you may be opening yourself up to possible problems.

Bookies operate almost exactly like a traditional sports book operation and charge vig on their bets. They usually steal their lines from large bookmakers.

Some bookies also offer betting cards or parlay cards where you pick a number of games for a bigger possible pay out than making straight bets. These cards are usually a huge profit center for bookies, which should tell you that they should be avoided.

Betting with friends and acquaintances is the best way to place bets without paying vig. But it can be difficult to find enough people willing to bet on the opposite side of the game that you want to bet on if you make many bets.

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How Does Betting on Sports Work?

The basics of how betting works are really quite simple. Two or more parties agree a bet on whether something will or won’t happen. Something of value is wagered, usually money, and there are typically odds involved. Whoever is correct wins the bet and the other party or parties must pay out accordingly

What is Sports Betting?

Sports betting is what it sounds like. You place a bet on a sporting event and win a set amount of money if the team or player you bet on wins. If the team or player you bet on doesn’t win you lose your bet. You can place a wide range of different bets and find many different places to bet and ways to make the bets.

Placing bets on sports is a way for some people to make money and a way for many to enjoy watching a contest more than if they didn’t have money riding on the outcome. Only a few people are able to make money in the long run betting on sports, but millions of people bet on events every year.

According to the Daily Mail, the global sports betting market may be as high as three trillion a year.

The article states that the majority of that amount is made in illegal ways. You’ll learn more about legal and illegal betting later on this page. The important thing to do is learn if what you want to do is legal or illegal so you stay out of trouble.

Plus and Minus in Betting

The plus and minus in betting can mean two different things. They are used in American style odds to denote how much a $100 wager will pay out if it wins (when a plus sign is used), or how much must be staked to win $100 (when a minus sign is used). Plus and minus are also used in point spreads.

Point spreads are among the most common wagers in sports betting, in the United States at least. And the lines for such wagers are displayed using plus and minus symbols.

Most contests are listed with a favorite and an underdog. The favorite gives points or runs and the underdog receives points or runs.

Here’s an example.

Miami vs. Dallas
Point Spread
Miami (+3) -110
Dallas (-3) -110

In this game, Miami is playing at Dallas and Dallas is the favorite and Miami is the underdog. The home team is usually listed second.

If you bet on Dallas you give 3 points. This means that for you to win Dallas has to win by 4 or more points.

If you bet on Miami you get 3 points. This means you win if Miami wins the game outright or if they lose by 1 or 2 points. You also win if the game ends in a tie.

If Dallas wins by exactly 3 points you don’t win or lose.

The -110 for each team is the odds. In this case, you have to wager $110 to win $100.

Lines aren’t always whole numbers. Half points are often part of a plus or minus line wager. This makes a tie or push impossible.

Here’s an example.

Philadelphia vs. New York
Point Spread
Philadelphia (+4.5) -110
New York (-4.5) -110

In this example, if you bet on Philadelphia you win the bet if they win the game outright or lose by 4 or fewer points.

When you bet on New York they have to win by at least 5 points for you to win.


Money Man

Moneylines are a type of bet where you bet on who you think is going to win the contest. On a moneyline bet you don’t need to worry about how many runs or points a team wins by.

The moneyline is still listed with a plus or minus number, but they signify the signify the odds – or how much you need to bet or can win.

Favorites are listed with a minus number and underdogs are listed with a positive number. At first, it can be confusing to understand how to read moneylines but once you get the hang of it, you’ll quickly be able to see the possible bets.

On a moneyline for a favorite with a negative number it means you have to bet this much to win 100.

Here’s an example.

  • Baltimore (-200)

This means that you have to risk 200 for the chance to win 100.

On a money line with a positive number for an underdog, the number is the amount you win if you bet 100.

Here’s an example.

  • San Diego (+180)

This means that if you bet 100 you win 180 when San Diego wins.

In evenly matched games or contests you might see a money line with both teams at – 105 or – 110. This means you can bet on either team by betting 105 to win 100 or betting 110 to win 100.

You don’t have to bet 100 on the plus lines or the total amount on the minus lines. You can bet any amount between the minimum and maximum amount the sports book will accept. The numbers are adjusted to fit your wager.

If you want to bet on San Diego at + 180 but only want to bet 50, here’s how the numbers work. Since you can win 180 if you bet 100, you can win 90 if you bet 50. If you want to bet 25 you can win 45.

To quickly determine the amounts divide 100 by your bet amount and then divide the line by the result. 100 divided by 50 is 2, and 180 divided by 2 is 90.

You can use the same concept if you want to bet less on a minus money line. If you want to bet 100 instead of 200 on Baltimore at – 200 you bet 100 to win 50.

If you want to bet more than 100 or the negative line you simply multiply the possible win by your bet divided by 100 or the minus line.

Over/Under or Totals Betting

The over/under is a bet on the combined score of both teams in a game.

Here’s an example.

New Orleans vs. Houston
Over 48.5 -110
Under 48.5 -110

In this example you bet on whether the total score of both teams will be over or under 48.5.

If you think the two teams will score more combined points you bet on the over and bet on the under if you think the final scores will total less than the line.

Over/under bets are an easy way to get started betting on sport, but the sportsbooks are good at setting these lines and you may quickly learn that picking winners is harder than it looks.

You can find over/under lines on basketball, baseball, American football, football that’s known as soccer in some places, and many other sports.

The Vig – How Sportsbooks Make Money

The vig is the main way sportsbooks make a profit. It’s a fee you pay when placing bets.

The fee is built into money line bets and is represented by the difference in the lines. If the favorite is listed at – 200 and the underdog is listed at + 180 the difference between what you can win and have to wager creates an area of profit for the book.

The most common form of vig is when you bet on point spreads. You usually need to risk more than you can win in these situations.

Common vig numbers are betting 110 to win 100 and betting 105 to win 100.

When the sportsbooks accept the same amount of bets on each side of a contest they lock in a profit.

Here’s how it works.
The book takes $11,000 to win $10,000 on team A and $11,000 to win $10,000 on team B. If team A wins the book gives the winners back their 11,000 and 10,000 from the losers. This leaves a profit of 1,000 for the book. The same thing happens if team B wins.

Sportsbooks rarely receive the exact same amount on each side of a contest, but over the course of hundreds or thousands of games or matches they lock in a profit as long as they post good lines.

The books also adjust the line when they get too much bet on one side of a game. They move the line to encourage more bettors to place wagers on the side they have a lower amount of money bet on. When they move the line this way it also discourages more bets on the side they have more money wagered on.

How to Place Bets

The first thing you need to do is look at the posted lines and decide which team you want to bet on and whether you want to bet on the plus and minus line, the money line, or the over/under line.

In land based sports books you go to a betting window and tell the person what you want to bet on and how much you want to risk. Some books offer betting papers where you can mark your selections, but most simply take bets by you stating your intentions.

When you place a bet and hand over your money the book gives you a betting slip. It lists the bet and amount. You must turn the betting slip back in to get paid when you win.

When you go to the betting window tell the person the team you want to bet on, whether you want to bet the point spread, the money line, or the over/under, and the amount.

Here are some examples.

  • Cincinnati at +3 at 110 to win 100.
  • The over for 100 on the Dallas Buffalo game.
  • 100 on the money line on Seattle.

Different sports books have slightly different preferences on how they take bets. Ask a book employee if they have a standard method or ask the first time you place a bet at the window.

When you place bets with a bookie you can use the same language and methods as you use in a regular sportsbook.

If you place bets at an online book you find the game you want to bet on and click the bet or team you want or check the box beside it and enter the amount you want to risk. Most online books then take you to a confirmation screen where you verify your bet.

The money is deducted from your account and if you win your winnings are deposited into your account.

Betting with friends is simpler. All you need to do is agree on the terms.

Going from a Novice to a Pro in Sports Betting

This guide about how sports betting works helps you go from a complete novice to making bets like a pro. Even if you’ve never placed a bet in your life you can now understand all of your options and make wagers without worrying about making a mistake.

Make sure you understand how the sports books make money and how the vig is a direct cost. If you make bets without vig you only need to win half the time to break even. But when you incorporate the vig you need to win more often than you lose to break even.

Note that everything covered here is on a fairly basic level. For more detailed information advice on all aspects of sports betting and how it works, check out our complete guide to sports betting.

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  1. Daniel Letsapa March 7, 2021 at 10:10 am

    I learned a lot from the presentation

  2. Billy mogare November 10, 2020 at 1:19 pm

    Thanks for the knowledge i need to learn

  3. Anderson March 20, 2020 at 7:48 am

    The prior readings was very helpful 4 me 2 understand the difference in betting procedures as they are in todays society and venues


  4. Julian October 28, 2019 at 2:41 pm

    I bet Steelers win tonight



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