NBA Basketball Betting–Is The Zig-Zag Theory Still Legit?


In the pre-Internet era most sports bettors exchanged knowledge the old fashioned way—face to face. Clearly, that wasn’t as efficient and accessible as the way we exchange information now but it did have its advantage. One major advantage was that you could milk a successful wagering concept for much longer before the public and/or bookmakers caught up with it.

Despite the copious amount of information available at online sportsbooks today, however, there are still players that insist on following outdated betting ‘systems’. The granddaddy of them all is likely the ‘Monday Night Football home underdog’. This system hasn’t been effective since the late 1970’s but there are still people who insist its a strong play—despite the fact that Monday Night Football as originally constructed doesn’t even exist anymore. Doc’s Big 10 College Football Game of the Year still moves the number but isn’t the slam dunk winner it once was.

In this article, we’ll look at another outdated concept that a fair number of players still think of as valid—the ‘Zig Zag’ theory in the NBA playoffs. On the surface, it makes sense that a team that loses a game in a Best of Seven series will respond with a degree of urgency, making them a stronger play in the subsequent game. It still works fairly well in NHL hockey though linesmakers have caught up with it to some degree.


The way it worked in the NBA was like this: bet ON any team that lost outright in their previous NBA best of seven playoff game. Makes sense, right? In the mid 1980’s it was money in the bank as was it’s cousin, the ‘Zig Zag totals theory’ (more about that in a minute). But what sharp bettors realize that recreational players don’t is that even the best system has a limited shelf life. And the Zig Zag theory appears to have lost it’s effectiveness long ago. It was still somewhat profitable in the 1990’s, hitting around 55.5%. Since the year 2000, however, blindly playing the ‘Zig Zag’ theory has hit just over 51.5%. Since you need to hit 52.38% to break even at 11/10 this isn’t good—and it’s not bad enough to make money going the other way. It’s just a good way to slowly burn away your bankroll.

The ‘Zig Zag’ totals theory, likewise, has seen its day come and go. This handicapping concept played on the public’s tendency to overemphasize what they’ve just seen on TV and the linemaker’s tendency to shade prices to reflect this. It was just as simple as the ‘Zig Zag’ side theory—all you had to do was go the other way on NBA totals in subsequent games. If Game One went ‘Under’, you played the ‘Over’ in the next game and vice versa. There was a point that playing this blindly was a 58%+ winner. Like the ‘Zig Zag’ side theory, it had a ‘shelf life’ and it’s now spoiled goods.

There are multiple reasons why even the best handicapping concept loses its effectiveness. In some cases, the game changes. The level of competition in the NBA circa 2016 is a weak imitation of what it was even a decade ago. The players aren’t as tough and the competitive hierarchy is top-heavy resulting in a few elite teams and not much else. Every sport changes over time—baseball has gone through eras when a lot of runs were scored and eras where pitchers dominated. Hockey has gone from a fairly high scoring game in the 1990’s to a lower scoring game today due to better goaltenders and defensive tactics.

Additionally, the premise itself can lose it’s effectiveness. That’s another way of saying that what once worked doesn’t anymore for whatever reason. For a long time playing ‘Under’ in the second half of blowout NFL games was a license to print money. As the league has become more passing oriented—and the public and bookmakers aware of the system—it’s effectiveness has diminished dramatically. Sportsbooks now shade second half totals ‘Under’ in most games which combined with the changes in the nature of the game has rendered it ineffective to the point of being useless. You can still find good value in NFL second half Over/Under bets but not in this manner.

Most significantly, once a wagering system is disseminated widely enough that the ‘general public’ knows about it the bookmakers are taking countermeasures. And that’s a major downside of the Internet era—effective systems get disseminated widely and rapidly. This can happen within a matter of months, if not weeks—and that should underscore just how dead the ‘Zig Zag theory’ is as a wagering system. Bookmakers know about it, they adjust the lines accordingly.

There is a corollary to all of this—sometimes a blind ‘system play’ might be dead but the underlying premise might still retain some validity. Both the ‘Zig Zag’ side and totals theory were based on a sound conceptual foundation—teams that turn in a bad effort one night in a playoff series tend to improve next time out. A bad defensive effort in one game (which produces an ‘Over’) makes that an emphasis for the next game and there’s a better effort (one that might even produce an ‘Under’). You might be able to use the logic behind some of these outdated ‘systems’ in specific situations even if you can no longer ‘play them blind’.

If you’re looking to become a serious sports bettor the sooner you disabuse yourself of the notion that there are ‘blind play’ systems that work over the longterm the better. Sports betting is never easy, it’s a 24/7/365 challenge where you’re trying to hit a target moving in several different directions simultaneously. The more you understand the challenge the more likely you are to respond to it effectively.