Sports Betting 101: Interpreting Line Movement to Locate Sharp Action

May 10, 2020 12:56 AM

Sharp bettors, known as "sharps" or "wiseguys" for short, are the experts of the sports betting industry. They are the professional bettors who have a long track record of success and win at a high rate. They have decades of experience and typically bet large amounts on games. Unlike public bettors who place wagers for fun as a hobby or source of entertainment, pros have no other day job. Sports betting is their full-time job and only source of income. 

Sharps are fearless but disciplined. They don't bet based on gut instinct or bias. They are completely data-driven and value-driven. Pros bet numbers, not teams. They only place a bet if they identify an edge or advantage over the sportsbooks. To be considered a sharp, you have to consistently win 55% to 60% of your bets. This means sharps win more often than they lose, which is why you never want to go against sharp action. Pros have the respect of the sportsbooks. When they get down hard, they move lines. 

Another characteristic of sharps is that many of them set their own lines. They create their own power ratings and then compare each team to one another to figure out what the line should be. Then they compare their numbers to what the sportsbooks are offering. If they notice a big discrepancy, they get down hard. For example, if the pros have the Ravens -10 against the Bengals based on their power ratings and the books open Ravens -8.5, pros will immediately bet Baltimore because the line is shorter than what they predict. 

It's important to remember that no one becomes a sharp overnight. It takes time, effort and vast experience. The goal is to get .01% sharper each day.

If you can't set your own lines and aren't considered a pro, the next best thing is to learn how to read and interpret line movement. By learning how to read the market, you can identify where the sharp action is falling. 

The first way to spot sharp action is through steam moves. A steam move is when you have a sudden overload of smart money come down quickly, all across the market, causing sudden uniform line movement. The entire market must adjust in a short period of time, not just a few books. You might hear this referred to as "the Chiefs getting steamed" from -6 to -7. The key with steam is that you need to make sure you act quickly enough to identify the swift move and can still bet the line at the triggering sharp number. So once you see the market moving, you would need to pick off a book still hanging that -6. Once the line is at -7, that means you missed the triggering number and the value is now gone. That would be referred to as chasing steam, which isn't a profitable endeavor. 

The second way to locate smart money is through Reverse Line Movement (RLM). This is when the betting line moves away from the popular side toward the unpopular side. Think of it as a line move that makes no sense. Remember, if it looks fishy there's a reason for it. For example, maybe 75% of bets are taking the Patriots -7 against the Jets. However, despite this lopsided betting you see the line fall to Patriots -6.5. That would be considered sharp reverse line move on the Jets, with pros hitting New York at + 7, causing the line to fall in their favor despite being the unpopular pick. Once again, to truly capitalize on the RLM you would need to jump on a book still hanging + 7 before it falls to + 6.5.

The third way to spot sharp action is through a line freeze. This is when one side is receiving heavy betting yet the line will not budge. Typically, oddsmakers will adjust a line further toward the popular side to limit their risk and entice betting on the unpopular side by handing out a better number. However, if the line refuses to budge despite the heavy betting, that indicates liability and a reluctance by the house to hand out a better number to the contrarian side. For example, let's say the Bucks opened at -10 and are getting 75% of bets. But the line remains frozen at -10 and hasn't ticked up to -10.5 or -11 despite the overwhelming support. Essentially, books are telling you that they're worried about giving dog bettors a better number because that's the sharp side.

Lastly, always pay attention to late line moves that occur on gameday or in the final hours or minutes right before the game starts. These moves are most meaningful because they take place late when the limits are highest. And they are almost always coming from pros putting down big amounts at the last second. 

By following and interpreting line movement, you can learn how to identify which side is receiving sharp action. The key is having access to a live odds so you can monitor the market and see line moves in real time. Plus, you need multiple outs so you can shop for the best line once you locate the smart money. Remember, pros aren't just picking the right side. They're also getting the best number. So if a pro hits the 49ers are -6.5 it doesn't just mean he or she likes the 49ers. It means they like the 49ers at that particular number. If you only have access to a -7, yes you are on the sharp side, but you're getting a worse number. Always strive to get the sharp triggering number so you can beat the closing line and maximizing your chances of winnings.

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