Last season the New York Times invited me to take over as their NFL handicapper. I would have to pick every game of the season against the spread and write a couple of paragraphs previewing the game and explaining my pick. I also would be able to write a short column each week to accompany my picks.
Even though I gleefully accepted this offer, I knew by doing so I would be way over my skis. I am no handicapper. In fact, I barely watch much NFL anymore. I have three young children, and when you have young kids, spending Sundays indoors on the couch is, well, frowned upon. I usually get to watch, at most, two or three games a week.
However, the Times wasn’t asking me to do this because they felt I was some kind of NFL expert. They had plenty of those on staff already. They thought I might be able to bring some knowledge of gambling and betting markets to the column. My charge was to treat the column more like something from the business pages rather than the sports pages, and I felt like that was a smart way for the paper to approach it.
In case you’re reading this and you’re wondering who the hell I am, I’m a writer who hangs around with a lot of professional gamblers. I wrote a book about gambling history and I host a podcast about the lives of gamblers. I am not the best gambler nor the best writer, but I’m fair-to-middlin’ at both, so I was at least qualified for the assignment.
Setting the Boundaries
Still, the impostor syndrome was strong, and I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself. Worse still, I had to do battle against my inner fool on two fronts, because I needed to provide the New York Times sports page readers with the narrative they sought, while making sure to also teach that audience something useful. I was as nervous about offending sharp gamblers as I was about failing to entertain square readers.
To avoid the impression that there was any value in tailing my picks, I played down the usefulness of them, or the utility in the record beyond a fun measure of how lucky I was. I said I wanted the column to hopefully teach readers something about price, value, and how these markets worked.
The column hammered how prices were more important thanpoints, because one number at one price might be better than a worse number at a different price. I tried to show how lines moved on information, and how making my pick before key information was available about injuries or lineups sometimes meant I had the worst of it, and sometimes gave me much the best of it.
Also, I tried to write a lot about market efficiency, and how these lines were tough to beat even by people who knew what they were doing, let alone me. I think I used the phrase “throwing darts at the wall” more than once to describe what I was doing. But I didn’t want to just throw darts at the wall. Despite my outward pessimism and cynicism, on the inside I desperately wanted to win.
Finding a North Star
To give myself a fighting chance, I turned to Unabated. I knew Captain Jack Andrews and Rufus Peabody and trusted them both. I pored over the articles on the site, and scanned through the Discord.
Based on everything I read, I came up with a simple handicapping strategy. Each week I would take the Massey-Peabody power ratings, take the difference between teams, add in my own home field advantage numbers (I went with a range of 1.7 to 2 points depending on the team early in the season, then shifted down as the season went on to about 1.65 to 1.95). I used the best available line at the time I filed the column, which was very late on Tuesday nights. When the number fell dead even and I couldn’t find any market separation, I subjectively picked a side.
There were a couple of hiccups with this process. First, the Times editors and fact checkers who were getting my story on Wednesday or Thursday would complain that the lines were different. I explained that they moved constantly and varied from book to book anyway, and that we needed to lock in a number at a point in time and just keep it there, otherwise I’d be changing things right up until publication every week.
This meant the column was useless to anyone trying to bet games on Sunday, but that was never the point of the column to begin with. In fact, the Times didn’t want me to give any actual “gambling advice” in the column, and to only talk about gambling markets in a general sense.
The second issue was that there were a few weeks when Rufus didn’t get the ratings up in time for my deadline. In those instances I chose to go with the ratings at Inpredictable, because I had read in the Discord that they were pretty solid the season before. What I found on those weeks was that the numbers fell pretty close to the market in almost every matchup. So Inpredictable was pretty good at, well, predicting the line! Which meant in those weeks I was on my own more than other weeks. (Looking at those weeks, unsurprisingly, I broke dead even on those picks)
But the biggest issue was that I was frequently asked to justify my picks in my preview writeups of the games, especially when the editors were surprised at my picks (usually when I took big underdogs, who crushed this past season). Often the explanation was very simple, and had nothing to do with football. “It’s just too many points.”
The Market vs. Narratives
It underscored a crucial disconnect in this kind of project: editors and readers need a narrative. But my picks were based on power ratings I barely understood at all. Thankfully, in many weeks of the season Rufus would do the Unabated Podcast where he would discuss what was going on with the ratings. And often Rufus would tweet out charts showing his unit grades and game grades, which also gave me some small insights into what was going on under the hood.
I also consumed a ton of podcasts and livestreams during the season that helped me get a handle on market moves and how NFL originators were thinking about the lines. A few of the best were Rob Pizzola and Clive Bixby going over the next week’s lines on Forward Progress on Monday nights, Adam Chernoff’s Simple Handicap podcast, and Chris Andrews Guess the Lines segment on Beating the Book with Gil Alexander.
I think I struggled with this at first, but got better as the season went on. What I learned to do was let the tail wag the dog – I would craft a narrative to support the pick and not let the narrative drive the pick.
In my mind, these were two separate projects. My previews of the games were really meant to inform readers of things like interesting matchups or storylines. After all, even the most stoic gamblers among us can admit that some of the games are going to be more interesting and exciting than others. And sportswriting is about storytelling. People who read the Sunday Times want something entertaining to read over their morning coffee and help them decide what games to watch. The picks were a sideshow.
To me, however, the picks were a game I wanted to win. My goal was to finish with a winning record, even if it wasn’t enough to cover the vig. Since I wasn’t trying to pawn myself off as a tout or a football expert, I figured this would be enough for me to hold my head high at the end of the season.
So how did I (or rather, Rufus and Cade Massey) do? I finished 143-131-10, 52.2 percent. Not enough to pay the bookies the vig, but pretty damn close to breakeven. Still, to the readers of the column, it was a winning season. On NFL PickWatch, a site that tracks every public handicapper who picks games, it was good enough to finish 25th out of well over 300 handicappers. Not too shabby for a rookie.
But here’s something maybe more interesting. After all, nobody really bets every game of the season, right? For my own personal bets each week, I chose to only bet the games where I could find a book that was two or more points off from my number on Tuesday night. On those games I went 64-49-5, 57 percent.
Getting in Action
One thing Rufus had told me was that the M-P ratings improved as the season went on, so I bumped my unit size a little each week. In week 9 I went 10-2-1 overall and went 8-1-1 with my bets. I won a lot of money that week. And I only had two losing weeks the rest of the season.
I also went on At the Races with Steve Byk on SiriusXM each week to talk football. ATR is the biggest daily horse racing show in America, but their listeners are gamblers and they like to bet sports. On my segments each Thursday, I told listeners exactly how I came about these picks. I told them where they could find these and other power ratings and do the same thing themselves, how to use Unabated’s tools and Odds Screen, and I preached the gospel of line shopping every week.
Furthermore, I only talked about my picks that were two or more points off the market number and still available in the market. I didn’t track those picks, but Steve did, and at the end of the season he told me I was over 60 percent, a shocking result if for no other reason than it was so counterintuitive. If the market still didn’t agree with me by Thursday, it’s probably better to trust the market, which knows a lot more than I did on Tuesday night. But again, small sample size. The horseshoe was simply wedged too far up my ass to come out.
My crowning achievement of the season, however, was when I was invited to come on Unabated’s Super Bowl Superstream and give out a prop pick, and my Skyy Moore anytime touchdown (+900) was the biggest pick of the night to hit (but only after they pulled a La La Land on Gina Fiore’s pink dress pick).
Still waiting on my free Unabated swag for that one.
Trusting the Process
So what is the point of sharing this? I wanted to share this because I felt like Unabated gave me the tools I needed to navigate my way through a pretty tough assignment. Even if I had ended up a loser for the season, there’s little shame in that after picking every game.
Fewer than half the handicappers tracked on NFL Pickwatch managed to break .500. But using a power rating I knew was backed with a proven model and using Unabated’s odds screen and odds calculators to shop the best numbers and prices gave me even more of an edge. In the end what I learned was that NFL sides are tough-bordering-on-impossible to beat, but that if you have an opinion, getting your bet in early and having a lot of books to shop for the best number is an edge.
That’s pretty simple, and it gets repeated a lot, but it’s so true. And it’s incredible how few people who bet on the NFL every week follow it.
“But one season,” I hear you screaming at your screen, “isn’t statistically significant.” There is no reason to believe I could do any of this again. And I suppose we will never know, because the New York Times did away with the sports section and with it the handicapping column I wrote. It’s an absolute travesty in my opinion, and one I hope they will eventually see to undo. That sports page has produced three Pulitzer Prizes and the writers and editors there are among the best at their craft.
Betting on The Old Gray Lady
While I don’t think the New York Times is where any reasonable person goes to get their gambling information, it is a place where people expect the highest standards for both accuracy, honesty, and quality of writing. I hope I held to that standard. It was a great privilege to get to take up an entire page in the Sunday paper with my thoughts and opinions. And I’m pretty sure having my picks in front of 9 million paying subscribers each week gives me the all-time record as the biggest tout in America.
But if I could run it back, I’d do it exactly the same way. If you insist on betting NFL sides this season (and let’s be honest, we’re all going to do it), this isn’t a bad way to approach it, assuming you don’t already have your own models and power ratings ready to go.
And if you’re reading this, and you’re looking to hire someone to write about the NFL for your publication, I’m available, and currently in need of a new excuse to tell my family why I have to be in front of the TV every Sunday. I already re-upped my Red Zone subscription, so please hurry.