You walk into a Pennsylvania sportsbook.
There is noise, there are people and there is an entire 40-foot-tall wall of screens that looks like the control room at Air Force Global Strike Command.
Then you see the counter, outfitted with a dozen or more windows, where sit a dozen or more professionals in matching outfits vetted in a process that must rival that of the CIA — based on the language they speak and the vast sums of cash they are entrusted to collect for the multimillion-dollar casino that employs them.
Next, you see the large board with point spreads, right out of Grand Central Station, with times, numbers, names and what appears to be some secret numeric code that even the Rosetta Stone can’t decipher.
You look down at your wrinkled $20 bill and the tiny handwritten slip in your hand that reads, “Steelers win.”
Your heart races. Your mouth goes dry. You break into a sweat. The room starts to spin. And as every disappointing eye in the place is fixated on you and the panic attack that is about to ensue, you turn on your heels and race for the exit, never to return.
If this is you, don’t worry. Everybody experiences nerves when they walk into a sportsbook for the first time, like a freshman on his first day in high school. Everyone looks older, smarter, wiser and cooler than you.
But hopefully, by the time you are done reading this, the playing field will be level. You will not only understand the language of PA sports betting; you’ll feel comfortable speaking it to those highly vetted professionals anxious to take your money. Because at the end of the day, it looks far more intimidating than it is.
Reading the odds board
First, let’s break down the big Grand Central Station odds board. All of the information that you need to wager like a pro will be there. (The same basic information can be found in the sportsbook on printed sheets, sorted by sport, but the electronic board is updated in real-time, and it displays the most accurate information.)
The board will look something like this:
401 RAMS -8 -400
402 VIKINGS 47 +300
403 COWBOYS 55.5 +185
404 CHIEFS -3.5 -165
405 RAIDERS 51 +400
406 CHARGERS -10 -600
What you see above is just a small section of the board. But to understand everything, you only need to understand a little.
The first column (401, 402, etc.) is the bet’s identification number, officially called a rotation number. It’s vital to know this number before you head to the window.
Not only does it make things move more quickly at the window; using the team name instead of the number is the surest way to announce to everyone that you’re a novice. On the flipside, knowing and using the rotation number makes you look and sound like a pro.
Across from the 401 and Rams is the point spread, which in this case is the Rams -8. The 47 under the -8 is the over/under total for their matchup with the Vikings.
The final column is the moneyline, which means that if you bet on the Rams to win outright with no spread, you’ll need to place a bet of $400 to win a net of $100. The inverse of that is true if you look down to 405 and the moneyline on the Raiders. In that case, a $100 bet results in a $400 payout.
Placing your bets at the counter
Now that you’ve done your research and chosen which wagers to play (the two things you must always do before ever approaching the betting counter), you’re ready to place your bets.
Let’s say you want to bet on the Rams to cover the spread, the Chiefs and Cowboys to go over, and the Raiders to win outright, and you want to place $100 on each bet.
Once you reach the window and the highly vetted professional (also known as a writer or teller), you say, “I’d like to place three bets. I’ll take 401, Rams -8 for $100, 403 over for $100 and 405 moneyline for $100.”
That’s it. It’s that simple. Just pay the writer (who is always helpful. So if you have questions, be sure to ask) and then double check that your betting slips are correct before leaving the window. There is nothing else to it.
Even betting parlays are just as simple. Let’s say you want to combine all three of the above bets into the same three-team parlay. Again, once you’re at the window, say to the writer, “Parlay 401, 403 over and 405 moneyline for $100.”
If you say “401” and not “401, Rams -8” like we did when placing the first bet, don’t worry. When you don’t specify the bet as being over or moneyline, the teller will assume you mean against the spread, which is always the default position.
There’s one more thing to remember after you place your bets and double check your tickets: If the line moves after you bet, it does not matter to you. The line or odds that were on the board when you placed your bets are locked in. They may change on the board before the game starts, but they will not change for your bet.
Now that you have your betting tickets and have picked out a comfy place to watch the games in front of the palisade of televisions make sure you follow these simple rules of sportsbook etiquette.
You can ask your writer about drink coupons. However, whether you receive them and how much you get is entirely dependent on the amount you’ve wagered. If you are there for the entire day, try to visit the same writer each time you go to the counter.
If you win, leave a little something behind in the way of gratuity. This will ensure the person remembers you, which in turn will make them more likely to gift you a free drink or two.
Never ask the server for free drinks. This is not like sitting at a blackjack table or playing craps inside a casino where the servers are only passing out free drinks. Inside a sportsbook, you only get your comps from the people who see the total amounts you are betting.
Don’t bother the wait staff with these requests. They aren’t in a position to fulfill them. But remember to tip them; they are still working on your behalf.
One final note: Conversations with other gamblers are always fun, especially with the people in the book that are rooting for the same winning outcomes as you. Talk to them, but don’t ask for or offer unsolicited advice. Many of the more regular bettors like to keep their information and opinions to themselves. Others hold superstitions about revealing their bets while the games are in progress.
Remember to remain respectful of your fellow gamblers as well as everyone’s space and privacy, and you’ll end up fitting right in with even the most-seasoned sportsbook customers.