What does Sharp Mean in Sports Betting?

by Big Al Staff

What does sharp mean in sports betting?

Do you remember the first time you ever made a wager?  It could be that you were playing golf with a friend, and you simply bet on who would have a better score.  You might have bet lunch on the wager.  And that might have been the spark which would kickstart your career as a sports bettor.

There are lots of paths to becoming an expert bettor in the NBA, the NFL, and many other sports.  Many bettors will start with simple moneyline wagers, or point spread bets, and they’ll gain experience with those types of bets.  Of course, to be successful, one has to put in hours of research to handicap the games.  And some bettors go all the way, and actually work full-time as a professional handicapper or bettor.  That takes a lot of confidence -- to give up your day job, and put all your money on the line -- to go “all in” in a sports betting career, but it's possible.

Now, in our experience, there are several extremely important components to becoming a winning sports bettor.  They include the skill to conduct quality research, the ability to process information, and the determination to get down at the best numbers.  And it’s this last characteristic -- betting at the most favorable numbers -- which will often separate the wheat from the chaff, or the sharps from the squares.

In this betting guide, we'll take you through the term 'sharp' -- what it means and how you can become a sharp bettor.  Thus, how you can find the best bets, and only wager these bets.

How to recognize sharp money

First of all, you should know what sharp money is.  As we mentioned before, when a bettor is sharp, the bettor values numbers, and will only bet at the best numbers.  Now, this does require a point of clarification.  When we say a sharp will only bet at the best numbers, that refers to an instant point in time.  So, if a game’s current line ranges from -4.5 to -5.5, the sharp bettor who likes the underdog will only take +5.5.  In contrast, a square (or casual) gambler won’t be concerned about the number.  If they like the underdog, they’ll be on it regardless of the line.  

Sharp bettors are also referred to as “wise guys” and often operate in groups known as betting syndicates.  Sharp money, then, refers to the side of a bet where the experts are betting on.  But this also requires a point of clarification.  Let’s say the Cincinnati Bengals are playing the Cleveland Browns, and the line opened at Cincinnati -6, and was bet up to -7.5.  It’s a misnomer to say, when the line is sitting at -7.5, that “the sharps are on the Cincinnati Bengals.”  Instead, you would want to say, the sharps were on Cincinnati at -6.  And that’s because you always have to include a specific point spread when you refer to what sharps are betting, or which side is a sharp side.  Indeed, once the line has moved to -7.5, sharp bettors may have moved off Cincinnati.  

When you know how to spot what the experts are betting on, it can be very lucrative and bring you an edge over the other casual bettors.  But it’s also critical to get down at the same numbers as the sharps; you can’t “follow” sharp bettors at worse numbers.  That’s not a path to success.  To spot sharp money, you need to understand a couple of basic factors.

Understand how sportsbooks operate
One of the fundamentals of sports gambling is the sportsbooks. The books are made up of bookmakers and oddsmakers.  Back in the days, it was just Las Vegas where the magic happened, but these days the sportsbooks are all over the world.  With online betting sites popping out the ground like mushrooms, there's even more competition.  However, one thing has remained the same, and that's the way sportsbooks operate.  

There's a general belief by the public that bookmakers try their hardest to level the betting action so they receive an equal amount of wagers on both sides of a game.  This will even out the books, and the sportsbook will earn their money on vigorish paid by all bettors.  However, this is actually a myth.  Sportsbooks actually don’t mind taking unbalanced action on each game.  Instead, all they care about is that they make money, overall.

Because balanced action is rarely achieved and, indeed, isn’t even the objective, the issue then becomes the factors that will cause a sportsbook to move its lines.  Now, oddsmakers aren't stupid; in fact, they're quite smart.  They have tons of data to learn from and understand that casual bettors not only prefer to bet the favorite instead of the underdog, but also are squares -- that is, they’re relatively unconcerned about the number.  Thus, casual bettors who like the Baltimore Ravens -7.5 over the Arizona Cardinals will also like the Ravens at -8, and at -8.5.  In contrast, the specific number will matter greatly to sharps.

Therefore, if a sportsbook moves its number, it will largely do so as a reaction to the bets made by the players it has categorized as sharp bettors, and not the wagers made by casual bettors (not including line moves due to player injuries).  This is done to limit further betting on a particular side by sharp players (and, thus, to limit risk).  The moment you appreciate all of this, you will have a much better understanding of how to value line movements.

Keep an eye on line movement and betting percentages
Any matchup will have an opening line, a current line, and a closing line (at the moment of game time).  It's incumbent upon sharp bettors to keep a constant eye on the marketplace to track line movement, and get the best numbers.  Also, by watching the marketplace, you will learn about how specific sportsbooks move their numbers.  Are they the first to get hit by the betting syndicates, or do they cater more toward recreational players, and instead follow the sharp books?  Keeping track of the line movements can inform you of which sides (and at which numbers) the professional bettors are on.

The other statistic to keep an eye on is the betting percentage.  The betting percentage does not reveal how much money bettors are wagering on each side of the matchup.  Instead, the betting percentage counts just the raw number of wagers on each side.  So, you could have 73% of the bets on one side of a game, while 27% of the wagers are on the other side.  But maybe that 27% represents more money, because those bets are larger in size.  These statistics are valuable information for the professionals!

Reverse line movement
As discussed above, the sportsbooks aren’t as concerned about square action as they are about sharp action.  And that’s because -- if you want to treat sports bets like consumer goods -- there will be inelastic demand for certain sides by square bettors.  But sharp bettors will exhibit elastic demand as a reaction to a price change.  And this fact leads us into our discussion of reverse line movement.  Let’s say the opening point spread was at -6.0 for the Chicago Bears vs. the Las Vegas Raiders, and more than 80% of all wagers were placed on the Bears.  You would expect the line to move higher, towards -6.5.  However, the sportsbook might choose to move the line downward to -5.5, even though there’s just 20% of the wagers on the Raiders.  When you see this happening as a bettor, you know the sharps are on Raiders, and are against the general public.

Sharp bettors pool their money in syndicates
Professional bettors often pool their money in betting syndicates.  They have access to large sums of money and need to bet more money on a game than any individual sportsbook will handle.  For example, maybe they want to bet $275,000 on an NFL side.  Now, they could get down $55,000 at BookMaker, which has the largest betting limits.  But they’ll also need to wager at a multitude of sportsbooks to process the entire bet.  Thus, they’ll choose to hit all the sportsbooks at once to get as much money as possible at the best line.  In reaction to such a coordinated strike, the sportsbooks will move their odds in unison.  This is called a “steam move.”  So, in the absence of meaningful news, when you suddenly see the numbers on a game change across the board, simultaneously, it likely means a big syndicate bet just came in.

How do sportsbooks handle sharp money?

Alright, so you understand how to spot the sides sharp bettors are playing, and you know how they operate.  How, then, do sportsbooks handle these bettors, and what do they do to keep the sharps at bay?  The most significant factor is the distinction between two sorts of sportsbooks:  sharp books and square books.  To illustrate the difference, we set up a few characteristics of each one.

Square books
  • Focus on casual bettors (square bettors) who are biased toward betting on favorites, and also parlays with higher vigorish
  • Have smaller betting limits to prevent sharp bettors from placing big wagers
  • Base their lines on the numbers published by the sharp books, rather than originating odds, themselves

Sharp books
  • Welcome sharp bettors with open arms
  • Large betting limits
  • Actively handicap matchups, and originate the odds (that other books follow)
  • Adjust their odds as a reaction to bets made by sharp players

Which sportsbooks should you pick?

As you can see, there's a distinction between how sportsbooks handle the sharp players and the casual bettors.  When you're choosing among sportsbooks, it's essential to know the difference between these two sportsbook types.  It goes without saying that each bettor should use, at a minimum, three sportsbooks to shop the lines to get the best number.  You should thus ask yourself what kind of sports bettor you are, and which type of sportsbook will best suit your needs.  So, there's a lot to consider when you select the three or four sportsbooks you want to use.

The most important factor, from our perspective, are the odds.  And that’s why 5Dimes is our #1-rated sportsbook, and should be the first sportsbook used by any player -- whether a casual bettor or a sharp.  And that’s because BetAnySports has reduced juice; its standard odds on football and basketball games are -105, rather than -110.  After BetAnySports, one’s choice will likely come down to what kind of bettor one is, and what they value most.  If one is a big bettor, and wants to bet, say, $25,000 a game, then BookMaker would be the best choice.  But if one was most interested in a big sign-up bonus, then BetNow or BetUS would be a perfect sportsbook.  And if one is a casual gambler who cares greatly about the website, and overall user experience, then Bovada is the industry leader in that regard.  Finally, if one is a sharp player, and wants to bet into the earliest-published numbers, then BetOnline is tops.  And all six of these sportsbooks are great for bettors who want to shop the lines, as they all offer unique numbers, and don’t follow other sportsbooks.  

As you can see, sharp and square are two commonly-used betting terms that will bring you that extra edge in sports betting.  After reading this guide, you now have insight into the way the industry operates and how you can profit from it.  It's always good to learn more, and to know how to implement your knowledge into your betting strategy, which will bring more money into your bankroll!

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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