Poker had its boom era between 2003 and 2006, and the daily fantasy sports (DFS) industry exploded onto the scene in 2015 – but 2018 and beyond is all about legalized sports betting. You can thank the United States Supreme Court for that encouraging development, after a 6-3 decision released in May officially repealed a federal ban on sportsbooks outside of Nevada. By striking down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) of 1992, the Supreme Court paved the way for individual states to set their own sports betting policies.
Today, as 2018 comes to a close, five states have joined Nevada in offering fully legal, regulated sports wagering – Delaware, New Jersey, West Virginia, Mississippi, and New Mexico. Other states such as Rhode Island and Pennsylvania have similar laws already on the books, with implementation expected imminently. And in fact, most industry experts like the American Gaming Association (AGA) believe that America will soon be home to 30 or more states where sportsbooks are a part of the legal gambling landscape.
Sufficed to say, American sports betting enthusiasts have never had it so good. But along with the many benefits afforded by legal bookmakers, this new wave of acceptance for sports wagering also brings with it a serious impediment for sharp bettors – limits and bans.
Indeed, most corporate sportsbook operators today -William Hills, MGMs, and Boyd Gamings of the world – focus almost entirely on mitigating risk. For the most part, this means constantly tinkering with point spreads and moneylines to ensure an equal amount of action comes in on either side of a wager. This approach to risk management is the foundation on which modern sportsbooks are built, and players have no reason to begrudge the books their ability to set spot-on lines that split the difference between two sides.
Unfortunately, however, risk management for the major sportsbooks also entails a more insidious process designed to tilt the tables decidedly in favor of the house. By screening out the most successful bettors – the “wiseguys” and sharps who earn their living as professional handicappers – modern sportsbooks are fully capable of creating their own captive markets.
Here’s how it works…
When a sportsbook suspects you of being a pro, or even a player who wins more consistently than most, they’ll usually begin by limiting your action. While the “fish” among the general public are free to fire off up to $2,000 on an NFL point spread, for example, these targeted winners may see their wagers capped at $500 per game. By applying arbitrary limits to a winning player’s action, sportsbooks seek to protect themselves from what they see as unnecessary levels of risk.
After all, the glittering, multimillion-dollar sportsbook facilities found in every casino resort along the Las Vegas Strip weren’t built because bet shops like to lose. As the legalized sports betting boom heats up you may find yourself getting into the game, either through a brick and mortar book or an online betting platform. But if you happen to take the craft seriously – studying statistical models, shopping for the best lines, and exploiting small edges in niche betting markets – you might just find yourself limited or banned for your trouble.
That’s what happened to an anonymous professional handicapper dubbed “Gambler X,” who offered his first impressions of legal betting establishments in the East Coast during a recent interview with ESPN Chalk:
According to Gambler X – a self-described Las Vegas local who has been beating the books in Sin City for the last decade – he found the newly launched bet shops back East to be especially strict in their risk management strategy. By targeting soft betting markets like tennis and European soccer over the public mainstays of NFL and NCAA football or the NBA, Gambler X quickly found himself on the books’ radar screens.
Per his account, once the books realized he knew what he was doing, Gambler X saw his limits slashed across the board. And in a few cases, he was prohibited from wagering at all with certain books. That experience is hardly unique, as you’ll learn in greater detail throughout the remainder of this page. Betting limits and bans are part and parcel of the sports betting industry in 2018, and going forward, the corporate consolidation sparked by the new era of legalization will only make matters worse.
But before we dive into that information, let’s give the books the benefit of the doubt by exploring a few reasons why they should reserve the right to manage risk via limits and bans.
Legitimate Reasons for a Sportsbook to Limit Your Action
Bettors have a funny way of picturing the books as an enemy of the people, rather than a business providing a valuable service. And while I wholeheartedly subscribe to the philosophy that players should strive to “beat the books,” I won’t go so far as to brand them my enemy. Instead, I see the sportsbook more in terms of the cat and the mouse. We’re both on the prowl and hunting for profit, but only one of us can walk away feeling satisfied when it’s all said and done.
Sometimes the books will beat me senseless, but if I work hard and stick to my strategies and systems, I can squeeze out winning years steadily over time. That’s my personal approach to sports betting, anyway, but I’m well aware that other sharp bettors prefer a more warlike approach. And as the old saying goes, all’s fair in love and war…
But as you’ll see below, attempting to circumvent the spirit of sports wagering to ensure yourself a profit is a surefire way to draw a legitimate limit or ban on your action.
Attempting to Arbitrage
In sports betting parlance, the term “arbitrage” is used to describe a complicated method based on betting both sides of a particular game or match. By patiently waiting for miniscule adjustments in a point spread or moneyline odds, folks who practice arbitrage betting -bettor known as “arbing” or “sure betting” in the business – can guarantee themselves a small profit no matter the final result.
You can see how a typical arb play shakes out using the tables below, which highlight an NFL game between the favorite Chicago Bears and the underdog Cleveland Browns:
- Chicago Bears to Win
- Bookmaker: Bovada
- Moneyline Odds: (-276)
- Stake: $80
- Payout: $110
- Result After Other Bet: $10 profit
- Cleveland Browns to Win
- Bookmaker: Pinnacle
- Moneyline Odds: (+450)
- Stake: $20
- Payout: $110
- Result After Other Bet: $10 profit
By using computer algorithms to “scrape” sportsbook data in search of situations like this, arbitrage bettors can lay money down at the book while absorbing no risk whatsoever. As you might suspect, anyone suspected of using arbitrage to their advantage will be banned outright by any major sportsbook.
Here’s how Ed Malinowski – sportsbook director for The Stratosphere casino in Las Vegas – described arbitrage bettors in an interview with ESPN Chalk:
Exploiting Bonus Offers
The other legitimate ban enforced by sportsbooks concerns “bonus hunters” who try to parlay promotional funds into guaranteed profits. This problem only plagues online sportsbooks like Bovada, Pinnacle, and 5 Dimes, but it’s quite prevalent in the online marketplace – especially with new operators like DFS titans DraftKings and FanDuel now serving as sportsbooks in newly legal states.
Remember, online gambling bonuses must be “played through” – or wagered several times over – in order to be unlocked and available for withdrawal. By betting on both sides of a game in this fashion, bonus hunters can remove all risk from the proceedings en route to unlocking and cashing out their bonus money. Of course, this trick only works once, as even the most lax online sportsbook has risk management measures in place to ban bonus hunters from taking a second shot.
Cheating to Win
Finally, sports betting cheats have been around for as long as bookmakers have accepted action. Unscrupulous players may try to parlay insider information into a well-timed wager that literally can’t lose. These cheat plays might involve point shaving, a la the scandals that plagued NCAA basketball in the ‘80s and ‘90s, or match-fixing like you find in FIFA international soccer or low-level pro tennis.
In any event, trying to cheat the books is something only lowlifes and lifelong losers must resort to. And just like you’d want a poker player with an ace up their sleeve banned from the premises, sharp sports bettors should have no issue with books banning blatant cheats.
When the Books Ban or Limit You Because You’re Winning
The justifications for limiting or banning players mentioned above may be legitimate, but the real threat to sharp players is books becoming increasingly willing to target winning players. In the United Kingdom – where legal bet shops line street corners and online bookmakers like William Hill, Ladbrokes, and SkyBet operate billion-dollar businesses – bettors are feeling the heat.
In a profile titled “Won and Done? Sportsbooks Banning the Smart Money” published by gaming industry reporter David Purdum in August, U.K. gambling consultant Steve Donoughue described the environment for winning bettors across the pond:
This isn’t exactly a foreign phenomenon either… As mentioned above, Malinowski has no qualms about banning suspected arbitrage specialists from the Stratosphere sportsbook – and other American bet shops are notorious for “backing off” consistently sharp winners.
The same Purdum profile quoted Jay Kornegay – who heads up the largest sportsbook in the world at the Las Vegas Westgate SuperBook – as saying he’s perfectly willing to limit sharp action:
Over in New Jersey, where legal sports betting launched only months ago, Division of Gaming Enforcement (NJDGE) director David Rebuck issued a statement confirming that “skilled players” can be targeted with action like betting limits – but not banned outright:
As you can see, the idea that sportsbooks will cap or refuse action from successful customers isn’t as far fetched as it seems.
William Hill U.S. Among the Worst Offenders
One of the prime culprits behind the new wave of limitations on winning bettors is William Hill U.S., the American division of the U.K.’s original sportsbook William Hill. Originally founded in 1934, William Hill has become synonymous with sports wagering throughout Europe. Between the company’s network of brick and mortar bet shops which are a staple on London streets, and an online sportsbook that covers most of Europe, William Hill is an industry trendsetter to say the least.
After arriving on American shores in 2012, via a series of sportsbook operator acquisitions across Nevada, William Hill U.S. set to work dominating the local market. Today, the company is recognized as the largest sportsbook operator in the Silver State, with over 100 locations scattered across Las Vegas, Reno, Laughlin, and elsewhere. But as William Hill U.S. extends its reach – including a multistate effort targeting emerging markets nationwide – bettors are feeling the brunt of U.K.-style sportsbook risk management.
According to multiple reports in the mainstream media, Nevada sports bettors are receiving the following message when they draw William Hill U.S.’ ire:
Joe Fortuna – a professional handicapper who claims his propensity for cashing tickets led to a ban – told ESPN Chalk that William Hill U.S. simply doesn’t want winning bettors plying their trade:
For their part, William Hill U.S. issued a comprehensive statement denying any allegations of targeted bans on winners:
Even so, the sheer volume of complaints raised by respected Las Vegas locals indicates that William Hill U.S. is taking a hardline approach to accepting action from sharps. Sportsbooks are well within their rights to exercise risk management however they see fit. With that said, what William Hill U.S. is doing to winning players isn’t right by any stretch of the imagination.
The best bookmakers work long and hard crafting the perfect lines to ensure themselves a profit by day’s end. When that rare bettor comes along who proves capable of overcoming those lines with any level of consistency, sportsbooks should respect the skill and strategy involved.
With operators like William Hill U.S. raking in piles of cash thanks to sports betting legalization, allowing them to exploit the marketplace by banning their best customers is a bridge too far. In the second section this series, be sure to look for a list of bookmakers that do right by their winners. Armed with that knowledge, you can easily bring your betting bankroll to those venues over William Hill U.S. without sacrificing any equity at all.
In the first of this two-part series on sports betting limits and bans, I hoped to show readers both sides of the debate. Surely, sportsbooks have every right to utilize risk management techniques to target arbitrage bettors who don’t risk a penny, bonus hunters who game the system, and cheats who give the entire industry a bad name. But as you might suspect, I don’t agree with the emerging trend in which sportsbooks simply weed winning players out altogether.
Sharp bettors who play by the rules deserve to be rewarded for their hard work and dedication. Casinos may not like slot machine specialists who routinely score sizable jackpots, or video poker experts who produce royal flushes like clockwork – but they still serve these winning customers as a matter of course. Things should work out the same way for successful sports bettors, but as every player who has suffered a bad beat or backdoor cover knows by now, life is far from fair.