When the assignment of writing a story about betting on Eastern European table tennis arrived, it looked straightforward. Locate a few websites, look for the work of some experts and find some wagering results.
How hard could it be?
But this is as much a story of how the project grew from an easy piece of work into a three-day scavenger hunt, complete with outdated internet links, faulty translations and an information superhighway snarled with misstated facts.
The obstacles in finding details about betting Russian, Ukrainian and Czech table tennis seemed as endless as the wait on hold for customer service ... well, anywhere now. They were best exemplified by looking at no fewer than seven Russian sports websites starting with the equivalent of ESPN.com and working down. They had a lot of soccer and hockey and boxing and MMA. But table tennis? Nyet.
But don’t tell that to American bookmakers, who are desperate to generate handle.
“We have literally put up everything,” William Hill’s Nick Bogdanovich said. “Australian rugby, Australian rules football, sumo, chess. Table tennis is probably doing eight times more than any sport.”
“The handle on table tennis is the vast majority of our handle now on a daily basis,” DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello said.
And it is not just a few games. There are dozens upon dozens every day, with the option to bet beforehand on each one or to make in-game plays with maximums generally set at $1,000 per bet. Known customers are allowed to wager more.
“Guys are betting dimes, nickels, that type of stuff,” Avello said. “The handle is surprisingly good. Really good. It’s no NFL game, but it’s not bad over the course of the day.”
Said Bogdanovich: “I’m utterly shocked at how people have gravitated toward it.”
While it was difficult getting plugged into Eastern Europe and learning how the sport works there, learning the game was easy.
11 points win set; three sets win game
Each game is made up of as many as five sets; think volleyball, not tennis. A player serves two consecutive points, the opponent serves the next two and so forth. A player can win a point whether serving or receiving. The first to 11 with a margin of at least two points wins the set, and the first to win three sets wins the game.
Millennials, rejoice. Each set takes only a few minutes, often less time than a typical commercial break during the NCAA tournament. Even with brief stoppages between sets, a game may be done in 15 to 20 minutes. In the course of a routine schedule, a player might take part in seven games a day.
“Look at the time over there,” Avello said, noting the seven-hour difference between Moscow and the East Coast. “There are morning matches, and there are evening matches. They play all day.”
Competitions do take place at seemingly all hours in nondescript halls with plenty of social distancing and no fans. William Hill and DraftKings have offered action on Russia’s Pro Liga for men, the Setka Cup in Ukraine for men and women and the TT Star series in the Czech Republic for men.
Pregame and in-game betting have been available via William Hill in Nevada and Rhode Island. DraftKings has had the sport on its apps in Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia and New Hampshire. Both books were expected to make table tennis available this week to bettors in New Jersey, where state regulators just granted their approval.
Where is the information online?
A Google search proved futile. This was a true dive into a coal shaft without a miner’s lamp. Bogdanovich and Avello played the role of canaries.
They discovered that the best site for live and curated statistics appears to be https://www.flashscore.com/table-tennis/. It offers each day’s schedule (called a “fixture”) and results.
Another feature of FlashScore comes with a click of a player’s name on the “fixture” list. It displays his record and how his games went, putting the most recent outcomes at the top. The site should remind tennis bettors of the head-to-head features on the ATP and WTA pages.
Take Tuesday’s 5 p.m. PDT Russian league game, for example, between Sergey Kuzmin, a -125 pregame favorite at William Hill, and -105 underdog Artem Aronov.
A click of the game at FlashScore revealed a page full of results and head-to-head matchups. It showed that the two had met 17 times this year, with Kuzmin holding a 9-8 advantage. Kuzmin won two of the last three against Aronov, including one game only hours before.
A deeper dive on the same page showed that Kuzmin was on a 4-1 run overall, while Aronov had just snapped a six-game losing streak with a victory his last time out.
Sure enough, at the appointed hour — 3 a.m. in Moscow — the game began. Kuzmin maintained his recent form by winning the first two sets 11-9, 11-3. He appeared to have the victory in hand. But Aronov rallied to win the remaining sets 12-10, 11-6, 11-6. Although it went the full five with one set requiring a 22nd point, the whole thing took less than 25 minutes.
Other user-friendly English-language websites include https://www.sofascore.com/table-tennis and http://betsapi.com/ci/table-tennis.
How does the betting work?
Like baseball and hockey, the most commonly seen wagering option on table tennis is the two-way moneyline for each player in a given game. William Hill shows a 30-cent straddle with a pick-’em at -115.
“It starts at our headquarters in Leeds (England),” Bogdanovich said. “We put up a line and let the money take it where it goes from there.”
After that it is pretty standard fare. Bettors can make straight, round-robin and parlay wagers. The in-play wager is based on a constantly changing moneyline.
Going back to the Kuzmin-Aronov example, the in-game odds to bet Aronov reached double digits when he was on the verge of being swept in three sets. By the time the fifth set began, he was + 110. Anyone wanting to get him seconds earlier at + 200 had to act quickly in what is sports betting’s ultimate answer to a limited-time offer.
Avello said DraftKings offers more options, including “correct score and total points in the entire game. For instance, one match the total was 82½ points. Then we have total sets in the best-out-of-five game. We might put up 4½ juiced pretty heavily toward the Under.”
Live wagering on in-progress games has proven most popular with DraftKings’ sharp players, Avello said. “The moneyline — who is going to win the match live — is probably 35% of the overall handle on table tennis,” he said. “Who is going to win the match before it starts is probably 25%. Then the winner of a listed point during the match is probably 7% of the action. Then we’ve got the game-by-game live. That’s probably 10%.”
Bogdanovich and Avello acknowledged that betting table tennis is not easy for the gambler or the bookmaker.
“I don’t know how you could possibly get an edge,” Bogdanovich said. “The juice is pretty strong whether you’re playing small straight bets, large straight bets or parlays.”
Said Avello: “The hold percentages are rather on the low side.”
Especially if someone makes a strike with a parlay. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, one William Hill player bet $50 using 10 favorites ranging from -135 to -165 in a Ukrainian table tennis parlay last month. It paid off to the tune of $9,676.
“There have been a few of those that hit,” Bogdanovich said. “People play those lottery tickets all the time.”
It is not easy to be a witness
Every game has a live score available at FlashScore or other sites. But video streaming? That is another matter.
Ukrainian competition has been shown live at Setka-Cup.com. But beyond that? It is like horse racing’s yesteryear, when a wait on telephone calls and chalkboards forced bettors to mark time long before simulcasts and charts became available on phones and tablets.
With table tennis, gamblers are taking someone’s word that these games are legitimately happening as shown on the online scoreboards. So are bookmakers.
“We don’t get any streaming,” Bogdanovich said. “People just watch the scores point by point.”
So far, no news is good news. There has been no whiff of scandal, and bettors hungry for any kind of action are gobbling this up.
Taking the long view, Avello believes that table tennis is here to stay after the pandemic ends.
“When we get back to normal and we’re doing the core sports that we all know well, this is going to stick,” he said. “We were always looking for additional content that we could add to the menu. This stuff isn’t going away. It’s going to stick around.”
Bogdanovich summed it up, saying, “It’s pure gambling at its finest.”