Handicap betting is common practice in points-based sports like football, rugby, basketball, and tennis, but is also frequently used in racing events, particularly horse racing.
Handicap betting affects the way that odds are presented, and it is important to gain a solid understanding of this type of betting in order to be able to interpret those odds and place effective handicap bets.
What is handicap betting?
Also known as line betting, the spread, points betting, or Asian handicap, handicap betting is the process whereby a bookmaker turns a sporting event in which there are varied odds into an even money contest, by giving a virtual advantage or disadvantage to certain competitors in order to even the field.
In points-based sports, an even money contest is typically created by simply adding points onto the side deemed to be the underdog.
For example, if Leeds United were favourites to beat Manchester United, the bookmaker might give Manchester United a 2-0 handicap advantage.
If you then place a handicap bet on Leeds to win, but they only win the game 1-0, you will lose your bet, due to the handicap that had been applied. Effectively, in the eyes of the bookmaker, Leeds lost the game 2-1.
Always bear in mind that in handicap betting, the handicap only applies to the selection you are betting on.
Similarly, if you placed a handicap bet on England vs Brazil, and the bookmaker had set the handicap at 3-0, your bet on England would still pay out even if Brazil won the game 2-0, as in the eyes of the bookmaker England would have been 3-2 winners.
How are handicap bets presented?
Using the above example involving Leeds United vs Manchester United, the handicap match betting might be presented as follows:
Leeds United (-2) evens
Handicap Tie (-1) 3/1
Manchester United (+2) 2/1
The match ended in a 1-0 victory for Leeds, but if you bet on Leeds to win you wouldn't win the market. Leeds would have needed to score as many goals as the handicap in order for your bet to pay out.
If you bet on the handicap tie, you would win your bet, as Leeds won by the exact margin specified in the handicap. When betting on a handicap tie, it is the margin of the win rather than the number of goals scored that is important.
If you bet on Manchester United to win, you would win, as they effectively won the game 2-1 in the eyes of the bookmaker.
If the competitors in the event you are placing a bet on are deemed by the bookmaker to be evenly matched, you might see the term 'scratch' (sometimes presented as 'scr' by bookmakers) instead of a handicap. This means that there are no handicaps applied to the game, and the actual winners will be viewed as the market winners by the bookmaker.
No draw handicap match betting
Handicap betting exists to make one-sided sporting contests a more exciting, enticing proposition for those who enjoy betting.
To this end, many bookmakers offer no draw handicap match betting, so that there is a guaranteed winner of the game in terms of the bet, regardless of the actual outcome of the game.
The way that no draw handicap match betting is set up is by giving half handicaps to certain teams.
For example, in a Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa, the bookmaker has given West Brom a handicap of +1.5. You place a bet on West Brom to win.
The match ends 3-2 to Aston Villa, but because of the +1.5 handicap, your bet on West Brom pays out, and the score was effectively 3.5-3 to West Brom in terms of the bet.
In the eyes of the bookmaker, it would have been impossible for your bet to have ended in a draw, because it is simply not possible for half goals to be scored in football!
Again, it is essential to keep in mind that in handicap betting, the handicap only applies to the selection you are betting on.
Handicap league betting
One of the most popular forms of handicap betting is handicap league betting, whereby you make a handicap bet on a team's performance across the course of a season.
In handicap league betting, you place your bet at the start of a season, based on a selection of odds that feature different handicaps across all teams in the division. The scratch (scr) handicap of zero is given to the league favourites. All other teams are given a handicap based on the bookmaker's expectations of their likely performances, so larger handicap advantages are given to the teams deemed to be weaker, in order to even the field.
Unlike handicap match betting, where you apply the handicap to only your chosen selection in order to calculate the outcome of the bet after the match has concluded, in handicap league betting you need to apply the respective handicaps to all teams in the division you are betting on to calculate the outcome at the end of the season.
Once all the handicaps have been applied, the final league table in the eyes of the bookmaker can be worked out and you will discover whether your bet was successful.
Asian handicap betting
A variant of handicap betting that was popularised in Asia involves handicaps with whole and half numbers, so that no draws are possible, similar to no draw handicap match betting.
The key difference with Asian handicap betting is the possibility of split handicaps, whereby your selection can have one handicap that is a whole number, and one that is a half number.
Leeds United (-1, -1.5) vs Manchester United (+1, +1.5)
In this example, Leeds United need to win the match by two clear goals in order to win the market, due to the handicaps applied.
But if Leeds win by one, then the whole number handicap results in a draw, while the number handicap gives Manchester United the victory. You would stand to receive half your stake back if you bet on Leeds to win, while anyone who bet on Manchester United to win would receive half their stake returned, and half of it would be paid back as winnings at the odds stated by the bookmaker.