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Three Things Poker Taught me About Sports Betting

Pamela Plays a Hand of Poker in 2015

There are a lot of similarities between playing poker and placing a sports bet. Prior to the 2019 football season, I was in the poker world for a solid decade, playing recreationally and working in the poker media industry for seven years. And I wasn’t just in it – I was in it hard.

The summer was poker media’s busiest time every year because of the World Series of Poker, the largest tournament series in the world. I’d work from 12 noon to 2 a.m. and then go straight to the Wynn to play cash games until 6 a.m. or so and do it all again the next day. On my off days, I’d get in an early round of golf, then hit up the Rio for Daily Deepstacks at 1 p.m. I woke up to poker, I’d dream about poker, I lived poker.

I left that world behind in May and haven’t looked back. Halfway through the 2019 football season, though, I’ve realized just how much my time in poker taught me about sports betting and how to be profitable over time.

Here are the three most important lessons poker taught me that translate directly to betting on sports:

Tilt Control

The definition of “tilt” is to become overly aggressive when placing a bet or to abandon a strategy after experiencing a bout of bad luck.

That feeling you get from a bad beat in poker is the same feeling you get from a bad beat in sports betting. We’ve all been there. You’re in a hand and your opponent is drawing air, but goes runner-runner to suck out and you feel sick. In sports betting, a bad beat could be everything from a player stopping short of the goal line in football (Shout-out Todd Gurley and Jamaal Williams) to a basketball player draining a three at the end of a blowout and everything in between.

Whatever the case, bad beats don’t faze me anymore. Poker taught me that bad beats will happen and they will happen often, so why fuss about it? One time, I lost a full $300 buy-in on a bad beat in a cash game. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I stayed in the game mentally, knowing that I made the correct play and that I was sitting at a good table. I not only got my $300 back but I returned a profit, leaving the game up for the night.

The same applies to sports betting. You can’t expect to win all the time, even when you feel you’ve handicapped a game perfectly. Earlier this football season, for example, I went on a 37-10 run, which stopped after a 5-6 week. Instead of going on tilt because I had a bad day, I kept my cool. Too often people have a bad day at the window and go on to chase their losses, firing away with little to no research on whatever game is left on the board in an effort to break even or turn a profit. This rarely works out and it’s a horrible habit to get into.

We have to start accepting the bad beats and losing days, knowing that there will always be another game to handicap and that we’re more likely to turn a profit in the long run if we stick to our guns, put in the work and, most importantly, stay level.

Bankroll Management: When to Raise and Lower the Stakes

Bankroll management will forever be the most important factor in both poker and sports betting. It sounds like old news, but without it, you can go broke in a hurry! Set a budget and stick to it, keeping in mind that the money you use for sports betting should be separate from your life roll – money you use to pay bills, buy food, etc.

In poker, it’s not uncommon to jump in stakes when things are going your way. Let’s say you started with $1/$3 cash games and you’ve built up your roll after a period of time playing at those stakes. You’ve crunched the numbers and are ready to take a shot at a $2/$5 game. You decide to make the jump but things aren’t panning out as you had hoped and your bankroll shrinks. Should you keep playing $2/$5 games hoping things turn around? The answer is no.

The same applies in sports betting. Going back to that run I had in football, I decided to increase my weekly budget after a period of success. I jumped in stakes and in my first weekend, I was brought back down to earth with a losing card. Don’t let your ego bust your bankroll. It’s perfectly OK to lower your bet size to preserve your bankroll.

Tip: Most professional bettors recommend risking one to three percent of your bankroll per bet.

Betting Mentality: Units Vs Currency

Another important thing I learned from poker was how to bet in units instead of currency and how to adjust that unit size based on my bankroll. For poker, one unit equals one buy-in. For example, let’s say I lost a $300 buy-in playing a cash game. I didn’t lose $300, I lost one unit. I lost an amount of chips and not money.

In sports betting, a unit is my budgeted amount per play. Let’s say I lost $100 on a bet. I didn’t lose $100, I lost one unit. Essentially, you’re numbing your mind to the idea that you are up or down a certain amount of money and forcing yourself to play within your means. Don’t start thinking about what you could have bought with the money you lost or what you’re going to do with the money you could make from a win. That’s a dangerous frame of mind to be in.

If you properly budget for the week/month/season, taking losses shouldn’t affect your ability to keep playing because you’ve accounted for the losses. And it’s gambling, so losses will happen. The same works if you win. Don’t get overly excited and start betting on everything because you think you can’t lose. The key is to stay disciplined.

Just remember, at the end of the day, it’s about cashing tickets. It’s about putting in the time and the effort, handicapping a game to the best of your ability with all the tools you have at your disposal.

Anything that happens after you place a bet is out of your hands – outside of hedging and live betting, but we’ll save that lesson for another day. Worry only about the things you can control, like your emotions after a win or a loss and not chasing your losses after a bad day.

If you practice these three things, you CAN become a better sports bettor, and your bank account will thank you for it in the long run. To wrap this up, let me pass on a philosophy I live by – our best assumptions are made from the data that we collect. We can only hope that the best decisions are made on the correct assumptions.