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Steam Plays

Football Betting: Steam Plays

By Loot, Football Handicapper,

However you decide to look at “steam” plays in football betting is up to you, but trying to understand it can never hurt. Knowing about this element of line movement can help us get better point-spreads and at the very least--see where the smart money is going.

A steam move is when a large influx of money comes in on one team resulting in line movement. The bookie usually doesn’t want to be stuck taking the other side, so they try to make the other team a more tantalizing bet--by making the point-spread more favorable. The most common steam play is when an opening line is posted and “smart money” immediately comes in on one team. Smart money is the money bet by the “wise guys”--the professional bettors. They see a vulnerable spread and pounce on it with big numbers.

Sometimes the smart money can come in late, when the sharps know a line will move in their favor throughout the week by wagering from the general betting public. Usually this happens when the public is piling on the favorite when the smart money likes the underdog. And if there is a particular steam play that should rise your eyebrows, it’s when the smart money comes flying in on what you would call a bad or mediocre team.

The problem is that what do we do with this information? Playing steam is not the preferred method of betting football for most people and it’s something you either have to do all the time or not at all. Not to mention by the time you realize where the smart money is going, the line has now been moved thus depriving you of the same value that the pros received. Once you notice steam, it’s longer steam for you.


We’re trying to get the best value out of our bets. If we like a line on a spread or total, we should bet it. At the same time, knowing the ins and outs of line movement and how steam plays a role can only help us get the best number for our money. There is something to be said for being on the side of smart money.

Paying close attention to the sides and totals can allow you to sense a steam and try to ride the barrel. That can take a lot of energy. If you’re playing at a low level, how much time can you really be expected to devote to this? Not everyone can be monitoring lines all day. Then again with today’s technology, it’s not that hard if you are honing in on a game or two looking for smart money steam right after the lines come out.

So it’s OK to hop aboard the steam train, just exercise caution trying to jump aboard while it’s already moving. Being on the right side of smart money means getting the same quote they got. And for something to be a steam play, the spread already moved and you’re likely too late. Thinking you can just get a point worse and that will still be on the side of smart money might work here and there, but that type of imprecision will cost you in the long-run.

Make sure to to not look for steam where it does not exist. Not all games will have this dynamic of a line swooshing in one direction. In a lot of games, the public betting will be spread out. A lot will come in on the day of the game and the action will be evenly spread, leading to maybe a half-point shift in the spread during the whole week. Sometimes, the line doesn’t move hardly at all despite a lot of bets coming in on one side. In addition, some steam is fake. Wise guys pump a number up artificially, then hit it extra hard late in the week. Not everything is what it appears on the surface when it comes to line moves.

In the NFL, a steam is when you see a game suddenly move a point, a point-and-a-half, or two points. And it happens quickly. If a game gradually moves a half-point or even a point throughout the entire week, that’s not really steam. In college, especially in some of the more obscure conferences, you can see bigger moves with sides and totals.

Even smart money is only 58% over the long-haul if they’re lucky. So it’s difficult to endorse the betting practice of groveling around trying to detect steam like a hyena looking for meat. Does that mean you shouldn’t worry if you were going to take the Patriots at home against the Browns and a bunch of smart money pours in on the Browns? On one hand, you’d get a better number betting it, but there is always something a little unsettling about being on the opposite side of the wiseguys.

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