Apr 6, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Wisconsin Badgers forward Sam Dekker (15) shoots a three over Duke Blue Devils guard Matt Jones (13) in the second half in the 2015 NCAA Men's Division I Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Bias is a B-Word: What I Learned from Betting on Badgers’ Basketball by Adam Ziv-el

Midway through the national championship game, I was certain that I was a guru of predictions. Six days after the Wisconsin Badgers basketball team lost 59-53 to Maryland, one month prior, I laid down a $100 bet down on Bucky to win the national title at 13:1 odds. I would have scored $1300 in profit if the Badgers had won the national title.

Would have. Unfortunately.

Early in the second half of the national championship, my gut-pick seemed as though it had been some sort of divinely inspired choice. My bet seemed intelligent, it seemed to confirm that my biased analysis was actually objective, it seemed to prove something.

I was planning to write an article about that something, about how ludicrous my bet had been and how my success proved the limits of statistical analysis. I was going to brag with meticulously chiseled word choice about the artistic nature of sports betting, and about how investing is like painting. I was considering these lofty thoughts during the middle of the national title game, when Wisconsin was building on its lead, when the stars seemed to be aligned.

I didn’t knock on wood.

It was a month since I had laid down the wager, and the Badgers held a nine-point lead over the Blue Devils, 48-39. Forty-five minutes later, Madison fell silent and I walked home from Memorial Union with a heavy heart. We all had heavy hearts. Yet, the buzz didn’t immediately wear off.

State Street was a zoo. People were blasting music from rooftops, fireworks were being set off on one of the intersecting side streets, and people were chanting curses at Duke from sidewalk to sidewalk. It took me about twenty minutes to get through, after nearly drowning in a sea of buzzing fans.

There was something special about coming so close, a leftover electric tension that still pulsated through the Madison air. I felt sick, but pleased with the experience, like the moment I realized that I had played my last truly competitive game of Tennis. When you know it’s over, the close calls seem even more miniscule, and the journey becomes even more romanticized.

Flashback to an hour before the national title game, when I made the decision to hedge my bet, meaning that I bet $110 on Duke to win the national title. So instead of a payout of $1300, I would have won $1190 in net profit. So why did I bet against the Badgers? Since at 1 to 1.1 odds, this last-hour wager ensured that I wouldn’t lose money betting on March Madness. Luckily the second time around, my bias wasn’t strong enough to overpower my mind.

Yes, if I had won my original bet at 13:1 odds, I would certainly be writing a very different article right now. It would have been a cheeky ode to the eternal glory of Badger Nation. Yes, my biased bet certainly increased the utility I had while watching these games. Thankfully though, an hour before game time, I realized that hedging my bet was the intelligent move. I realized that the streak of luck wasn’t necessarily going to continue through the national championship.

In short, I understood the tragic tale of twenty-three.

The Number


I’m currently chanting this number to myself in the car, on my way to the casino, my mind focused on roulette. I recite these two words as if I am repeating a holy mantra, rhythmically timing the syllables with each subsequent exhalation. Twenty-three. Om.

Twenty-three is not merely my lucky number, it represents my favorite sports team and the hypothetical successful investment I just made. In fact, I am so confident in twenty-three that I choose to call my irrational bet an investment. I’m on the way to the casino with last week’s paycheck and a week’s worth of stored up karma. I have a strategy.


You see, everything in my life points to the imminent success of twenty three, from the letters in my name to the date of my birth. For me, the Wisconsin Badgers Basketball team was the real manifestation of this metaphor. I simply saw no way that the Badgers would lose in the NCAA tournament.

This single number is the essence of entertainment in my life, it breathes meaning into each moment of my math class. Twenty-three will bring me success because it is special, and I’ve confirmed this belief by only reading articles about how special the number twenty three is. I grew up loving this number with a passion, and today, my undying allegiance will pay off, for you are my home town sports team that I love, I mean you are twenty-three.

My betting strategy is exquisitely simple. Step 1; play roulette, and Step 2; bet on twenty-three. The entire night. I’m not going to stop betting on my favorite number until the casino closes for the evening goes or bankrupt from the debts it owes me.

(Or until I lose every penny.)

This, in a nutshell, is the nature of biased gambling. We play a game of chance by betting on our favorite team or by drafting an overvalued fantasy player because they’re on our favorite professional team. Sports bettors do this because we trust our gut feelings, and the result is burning through wads of cash like throwing sheets of a newspaper into a bonfire. You need not to have experienced the sensation to comprehend that there’s nothing therapeutic about watching cash burn.

Here’s the truth: 59% of bettors trust their opinions and “gut feelings” most when laying down dollars, and only 27% routinely research bets before parting with their money.

Do you think that “gut feelings” occur randomly? If my favorite number is 23, do you think that relative other numbers, I will be most likely to bet on twenty-three?

Here’s another fact: 52% of regular bettors say they lay money only on their favorite team.

I.E. Bias: “prejudice in favor of or against one thing”. If people were betting only to make money, and could discern their love for their favorite team from sports gambling endeavors, they’d wouldn’t be prejudiced as to who makes them money, they’d just care how much money was being earned.

The rollercoaster of near ecstasy and grounded disappointment, that is the rollercoaster of having bet on the Badgers to win the national title, was a waltz with bias.

Here’s how to learn the waltz.

Learn from Your Bias by Measuring Your Bias

If I didn’t allow bias to factor into my daily fantasy decision-making, then I would not select at least one Milwaukee Brewer every time I chose a roster. If I were an unbiased sports gambler, I would be as likely to bet on the Packers as the Bears. Note: Despite my love of statistical projections, I will never bet on the Bears, no matter what the numbers say.

How does this relate to my obsession with twenty-three?

In roulette, the likelihood of guessing the exact slot that a ball will land on is 1 in 38, and the payout is 35 to 1. Despite my firm belief that the wheel will land on twenty three enough times to safely ensure that my winnings help me settle into retirement, by the end of the night, the expected value formula tells a different story:

EV (betting on 23) = -5.3%. (per role)

No matter how hard I pray to the God’s of roulette, in the long run, I will lose, on average -5.3% of what I wager on each role.

But, what about that rush that I get when the ball lands on twenty-three? We can’t simply discount the additional happiness of betting on your team when they win. That feeling of pure joy, as though my mind’s desire for twenty-three has actually shifted the laws of statistics. It’s bliss.

If I consistently select daily fantasy players who (un)surprisingly happen to be on my favorite sports team, I’m setting myself up for failure. I’m betting on twenty-three.

If you’ve ever have wagered on your favorite team and won, you know this genre of joy that epitomizes the highs of sports betting. This is why, for the average sports bettor, the utility of betting conforms to the following theoretical equation that may seem oversimplified but can help us think about the influence of bias in a utility equation.

Utility (of bet) = profit * (bias + entertainment)


Bias=an integer value that represents a bettor’s relationship with the team.

Entertainment = Utility of watching that given sports game, given you had not bet.

An unbiased bettor has bias=1, and thus Utility= profit + entertainment.

Bias is a measure of additional utility (happiness) that is derived from your favorite team winning. If I am a Packers fan, then I might prefer to watch Green Bay win and earn five dollars rather than watch Jacksonville beat Tampa Bay and win six dollars. This implies that my bias is greater than zero.

The point is to recognize that bias is an extremely influential variable in determining utility. So, if I want to identify my bias in daily fantasy sports, I should recognize my tendencies: maybe I pick players from the NL Central because my team is in the NL Central, so I’m more likely to know the roster’s of these teams. Maybe I start a defense that is playing the Bears because I think the Bears will always suck.

It’s my twenty-third role and the roulette ball lands on twenty-three. Finally, my luck is turning around, and the laws of nature are beginning to conform to my ignorant belief that, just for this one night, the laws of statistics won’t apply. Twenty-three will beat the house. In sports betting: My favorite team will consistently beat the spread.

The problem for most of us is not that we bet, it’s that we let emotional entertainment factor into our utility equation to our equation to a great extent. Why? It’s because there are few greater moments than watching your team win while simultaneously making a profit.

It’s not that we’re irrational bettors, it’s that we rationally ignore the statistics.

“All of us show bias when it comes to what information we take in. We typically focus on anything that agrees with the outcome we want.” ~Noreena Hertz


Bob Donnan – USA Today Sports

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