What Is Zig-Zag Theory in Sports Betting?
For those of you who haven’t heard of the zig-zag theory before, we wouldn't blame you thinking it’s some kind of wacky back and forth strategy for placing bets.
We promise, there’s way more to it than that.
If you’re a follower of the NBA or NHL, especially betting on these leagues, chances are you’ve come across the zig-zag theory before. This betting strategy is typically applied to basketball and hockey because they both employ a similar playoff format.
The basic idea is that the team coming off a loss is more likely to cover the spread in the next game. Not only are they more motivated after losing, sportsbooks also adjust the odds in their favor for the next game.
The term “zig-zag” also has to do with teams flying back and forth across the country to play each other. Paying attention to teams zig-zagging across the country, and how that affects their in-game performance, can result in more money in your wallet.
In this guide to zig-zag betting we’ll cover exactly how the system works, the different factors to pay attention to and how to use it to bet on NBA basketball and NHL hockey specifically.
We’ll also explore how historical sports data can shed some light on what makes the zig-zag system so powerful and finally we’ll cover a few reasons you should use the zig-zag theory in moderation, especially as a beginner.
How Does Zig-Zag Theory Work?
In a nutshell, the zig-zag theory suggests that when a team loses a game, you should bet on them to cover the spread in the game directly after. Banking on a team bouncing back from a loss is an important part of the theory, but it aims to go deeper than that. It also takes into account which team is home and which is away and the travel necessary during the playoffs.
The zig-zag theory is mostly applied to betting on the NBA and NHL because both leagues have the same playoff format. Other leagues such as the NFL and Premier League use one-game playoffs, whereas the MLB goes with a 2-3-2 format.
Players in the NBA and NHL are forced to travel more with the longer 2-2-1-1-1 format for the playoffs. With the amount of travel required for playoff teams in these leagues, the zig-zag theory is especially relevant.
Home Advantage in Zig-Zag Theory
At first glance you might be wondering how the home advantage factors into zig-zag betting theory. Is it simply the home team having the advantage by being on home court?
The zig-zag theory aims to go deeper than that and it boils down to a mix between home court advantage and momentum in the series. There are different ways of applying this theory depending on how a certain team is doing in a series matchup.
Let’s look at some common scenarios to see how you can use the zig-zag theory to help choose the winning team.
Factors to Look For When Betting Zig-Zag Theory
Keep an eye out for these special circumstances and you might discover a profitable spot to use the zig-zag theory:
Home Team Goes Up 1-0
This is a scenario that happens approximately 53% of the time in the NBA and NHL combined. Statistics in the NBA show that if the home team wins Game 1, they have a 65% chance of winning the series.
In the NHL, those odds shoot up all the way to 76%, with the most likely outcome there being that the home team wins the series in six games.
If the home team goes up 1-0 it’s a great opportunity to bet on the losing team in the next game.
Home Team Goes Up 2-0
Betting the underdog on this third game is one of the most common ways that bettors play the zig-zag theory. The underlying strategy is that after the lower-seeded team loses the first two games on the road, they will play their hearts out in Game 3, on home ice, when the series is still within reach.
Between the NBA and the NHL, the lower-seeded team ends up winning nearly 60% of the time when they go back home after losing the first two games. In a world where many of the odds are near 50%, placing a bet knowing that the historical odds are near 60% is a huge advantage.
Home Team Loses First Game
Of course, the home team doesn’t always win their opening game at home. When the lower-seeded team is able to win that first game, placing bets on the higher-seeded team to bounce back in Game 2 is usually a shrewd move.
While momentum is a funny and sometimes unpredictable thing, odds are that the home team plays a better game on home ice in Game 2. Rough odds suggest that higher-seeded teams in the NHL and NBA teams win 75% of the time in Game 2 when they’re coming off of a loss.
A Simple Reason Supporting Zig-Zag Theory
Think of it this way, usually in sports when a team wins they feel pretty good about their performance. The players are feeling good, the coaches are often feeling good, and this leads to the winning team not making as many adjustments.
On the flip side, there aren’t many losing teams that are happy with the way they played. This leads to the coaching staff making adjustments to be better prepared heading into the next game. It also makes the players hungrier for a win to get back in the series.
Like moves on a chess board, you’re more likely to see the losing team actually put themselves in a better position to win the next game, whereas the winning team is more comfortable and less motivated.
Reasons to Use Zig-Zag Theory Cautiously
While there are historical statistics and probabilities supporting the zig-zag theory, there are also good reasons to think twice before placing all your bets based on the above information.
Remember that the zig-zag theory is a guideline and a resource for placing bets, but it is not the be-all or end-all. Here are some other things to consider before you rely solely on the zig-zag theory for all your playoff bets.
One thing to check before applying the zig-zag theory is the matchup between the two teams. Check the past history of the two teams facing each other and decide if that plays a factor in your bets.
The history between the two teams, and whether it’s skewed in a certain direction, could be enough to make the zig-zag betting pattern unappealing. One example is the round two matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights in the playoffs last season.
Betting on the Golden Knights was an anomaly on its own, but the Sharks were still favored heading into the matchup. Despite them being favored, in the regular season, the Golden Knights actually won three of the four matchups against the Sharks.
That regular season success carried over to the playoffs, where Vegas overcame San Jose and won the series in six games.
Whether you’re a fan of the NBA or the NHL, if you like digging into the statistics behind teams and players you’ve likely heard of sports database sites like Basketball Reference and Hockey Reference.
These are a great resource for checking out split stats, and these are something else to consider when placing your playoff bets.
Splits stats is a broad term, but it essentially measures how certain players and team perform in specific situations. How does James Harden perform against the Western Conference compared to the Eastern Conference? How does he match up against a specific team or division?
Take Harden’s performance versus the Golden State Warriors in the regular season and playoffs as an example. Although Harden only faced the Warriors twice during the regular season, his 21 points per game was the worst total he posted against any team he faced. Even though Harden and the Houston Rockets pushed the Warriors to seven games, it was Golden State who wound up on top.
Google can save your life on this one if you haven’t been paying attention.
This is something you MUST look into before placing your bets. If you aren’t fully immersed in the sport you’re betting on or haven’t been paying close attention, a quick Google search of a team’s injury report can save you lots of money if you do it before making a bet.
In sports, injuries happen. That’s especially true in a physical league like the NHL. Make sure you’re looking in the injury reports for both teams to see if it’s significant to your bets.
Just like looking up injuries, it’s easy enough to do a quick Google search to see if the team you’re looking to bet on is hampered by any suspensions.
This is neither as common or important as checking the injury report, but it’s worth making it a habit to check both before placing your bets on the playoffs. This is especially true for placing bets on the NHL playoffs, where suspensions occur more frequently than they do in the NBA.
Other Things to Consider Before Applying Zig-Zag Theory
Doing your research on aspects of the game such as the matchup, split stats, injuries and suspensions is easy and simple enough to do. All you need is your phone and the internet and you’re already ahead of many blind bettors.
However, there are a couple of other things to consider before using the zig-zag theory. Call these the qualitative factors, whereas measuring the value of stats, injuries and suspensions are more quantitative features that you can directly apply to the outcome.
These require more reflection, thinking and sometimes gut decisions:
It’s important to check out statistics and information regarding the teams in play, but what about their raw motivation to win the game?
Sometimes this doesn’t have to be about game-to-game motivation. It could be the team’s motivation going into a series.
Think about the first two series between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Warriors took the first title match in 2015. Despite the Warriors being ahead in Game 1 in 2016, it was the Cavaliers who clawed their way back to win the NBA title.
Golden State bounced back in 2017, and by then raw talent was playing a bigger factor than motivation. So while it’s worth noting team and player motivation, also pay attention to other simple factors, such as team talent.
This one comes with a big caveat, especially after we went over some of the most likely odds for a team coming off of a loss early in the series.
Momentum is a funny thing. Take our above stat, with lower-seeded teams winning 75% of the time at home after losing two straight games.
Momentum is definitely a factor and it’s worth also considering how a team lost and how that affects the momentum. Does a blowout loss shake up a team so badly you can’t even imagine them winning the next game? Was a close loss, perhaps from a blown lead, demoralizing enough that taking the losing team to win the next game seems foolish?
The bottom line is that you should look at the numbers and stats in a series first, but also consider the less cut and dry factors that can come into play.
Zig-Zag Theory for Betting NBA
As mentioned before, the zig-zag theory applies mainly to two major sports leagues in North America. Let’s start by digging into the more popular of the two leagues, the National Basketball Association.
Before we get into some examples of zig-zag betting in the NBA, it’s interesting and important to note the changes in the playoff format for recent years, which has affected the way that sports bettors view the playoffs as a whole.
The Old NBA Finals Format
Although the NBA now uses the 2-2-1-1-1 playoff format, for more than two decades they had an exception to that rule.
In the 1980’s, the NBA changed the playoff format for the finals to a 2-3-2 set-up. They kept the 2-2-1-1-1 format for the first three rounds of the playoffs, but once things ended up being West versus East, the NBA decided that they needed to change the format.
That is because, in the 80’s, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics were the cream of the crop in the NBA. For the entire decade, either the Lakers or the Celtics represented their respective Conferences in the Finals, and the two teams faced off against each in the Finals three times in a four-year span.
Because those two teams were so dominant, the NBA implemented a 2-3-2 rule for the Finals, which meant the higher seeded team hosted Games 1, 2, 6 and 7.
NBA Goes Back to Their Roots
In 2014, the NBA switched back to the 2-2-1-1-1 format in the NBA Finals, following the format of the other three playoff rounds.
For bettors, this added some continuity that made it easier to use the zig-zag theory. Many gamblers also viewed the 2-3-2 format as favoring the road team, so sticking with this format will help us understand the advantages (and disadvantages) that the home team faces.
Brief History of Zig-Zag Theory in NBA
Using the zig-zag theory in the NBA used to be a gold mine for sports bettors. From 1991 to 2000, bettors were crushing their zig-zag wagers.
Professional sports bettor Marc Lawrence pulled data about this theory in the NBA to see how it’s changed since the 1990’s. Suffice to say, use of the theory has changed drastically since the those golden 90’s for bettors.
From 1991 to 2000, Lawrence found that, by using the blind zig-zag theory, which means betting on the losing team in Game 2 no matter what situation, bettors had a 56% success rate. Those are amazing odds for bettors when you consider bet diversification and volume during playoff betting.
However, the good times could only last for so long.
From 2001 to the present day, the success rate of placing a bet on the team coming off of a loss registered a 51.5% success rate. That’s still a decent win rate but it’s nowhere near the numbers from the previous decade.
Why the NBA Zig-Zag Theory has Changed
There are a few reasons why betting blind on the team coming off of a loss isn’t as profitable as it once was.
One of the most prominent reasons is the rise of super teams in the NBA. While that didn’t exist in the 90’s to the same extent, the rise of teams like the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and The Golden State Warriors have meant that teams are sweeping series more than ever before.
Even in the 2018 NBA Finals the Warriors put the boots to the Cavaliers, sweeping them in four straight games. Betting against these super teams, even against a strong opponent like the Cavaliers, is a difficult task in this era of certain NBA teams being outright dominant.
How it Works in the NBA
So we’ve covered the specific aspects of zig-zag theory, and we’ve thrown some recent numbers from the NBA at you, but what else should you consider?
It is worth noting the specifics of the zig-zag theory when making your bets, but remember that this strategy isn’t as foolproof as it used to be in the 1980’s and 1990’s. As Marc Lawrence’s research shows, the odds of winning by betting on the losing team after a loss have dropped significantly since the 90’s.
Another thing to note is that in the 2017 playoffs, the record of teams coming off of a loss in the playoffs was 21-43. You can credit the rise to super team such as the Warriors for creating less parity, meaning momentum plays less of a factor in your betting results.
However, momentum and the zig-zag theory do play more of a factor earlier in the series. That’s because there are matchups that don’t feature an extremely dominant team.
Here are a few examples of how zig-zag theory can be used in the NBA playoffs.
Example #1: 2018 1st Round, Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indiana Pacers
These two teams put on a show during their 2018 first round matchup. The Pacers were a sneaky good bet to win Game 1 after beating the Cavs in three out of four regular season matchups, and they pulled out a victory in Game 1.
Zig-zag theory would have given the Cavs roughly a 70% chance to win Game 2, which they did. With the series shifting back to Indiana, the Pacers took Game 3, then the Cavs went right back to steal Game 4.
If you had bet on the Game 1 losers in Game 2 you would have won by this is also an example of why the zig-zag theory isn’t foolproof. You can just bet blindly on the losing team.
On home court in Game 5, after winning Game 4, the Cavs pulled out a tight win.
However, they went on to get crushed by the Pacers in Game 6. Often, teams do better when they get blown out because they see adjustments that can be made. Those losses are often easier to overcome that the close, tooth and nail matchups.
Sure enough, the Cavs returned home and won Game 7, days after they lost by 34 points in Game 6. Go figure.
Example #2: 2015 2nd Round, Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Chicago Bulls
The zig-zag theory generally has little to do with Game 1. You’ll have to rely on your own research for that one. Suffice to say that a few people would have lost money on the Cavs in this one.
The Bulls jumped out to a 1-0 series lead after beating the Cavs 99-92. Using the zig-zag theory, you would have bet on the Cavs in Game 2, and you would have won.
After their road loss, the Bulls went home with a vengeance and beat the Cavs in front of their home crowd. In a tight Game 4, the Cavs once again knotted the series up.
It was at this point that talent and experience took over. The safe bet would have been to pick the Cavs at home in Game 5, which they won. They also won Game 6, their third win in a row against an overwhelmed Bulls team, who just came off of two crushing, close losses.
Example #3: 2018 NBA Finals, Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Since we have two theories that rely on the zig-zag heavily for games 2 and 3, let’s look at one example where the zig-zag gets thrown completely out the window.
Basketball fans will remember that this series was a sweep (sorry, Cleveland fans). Zig-zag theory traditionally would have told us to bet on the Cavs in Game 3, with the probability of them winning up near 60%. Of course, they lost that game and found themselves in a 3-0 hole.
History tells us that teams that are up 3-0, no matter the seeding or matchup setting, win Game 4 approximately 63% of the time. If you bet on the Cavs making another comeback, shame on you. If you picked Golden State to sweep after three games, kudos.
Zig-Zag Theory for Betting NHL
One of the reason why zig-zag theory wins at just above 51% in most NBA scenarios is that the rise of “super teams” has affected the outcome of many series. The common refrain among casual fans with the association is that you don’t need to tune in to games until the Conference Finals.
In the NHL, the league is trending in the opposite direction. Parity between teams’ skill is more evident than ever before, which is one reason why a team like the Vegas Golden Knights rose to prominence so quickly in the NHL.
Before we dive into zig-zag, let’s look at how the NHL got to their 2-2-1-1-1 format.
Home Sweet Home in the NHL
The NHL playoff format has changed a grand total of 26 times over the years. That’s less surprising when you learn the league has been in existence for 100 years, more than 30 years longer than the NBA.
Despite the changes, the Stanley Cup Finals format has remained in a 2-2-1-1-1 format since the “Original Six” teams were the only ones in the league, back in the 1930’s.
There was a period in the 90’s where the NHL employed a 2-3-2 format for teams in the Central and Pacific Division, in order to get rid of that disadvantage compared to the Eastern Conference. They then added a rule where the home team could choose the format, but then quickly went back to the 2-2-1-1-1 format for all series.
Why NHL Betting Is So Valuable
There is a common belief that NHL hockey is one of the best sports to bet on. It’s partly because an analytical revolution has taken place during the last decade in the NHL, with a wealth of information becoming available for those who want to really dig in.
One other reason why the NHL is considered a good sport to bet on is the common belief that handicappers in North America pay way more attention to the other three major leagues.
With the MLB, NFL and NBA garnering more attention, logic suggest that the NHL presents sports bettors with less thoroughly researched and therefore potentially more valuable odds.
Some Things To Consider for the NHL and Zig-Zag Theory
With the high amount of parity between teams in the league, using the simple logic of “picking the losing team” is a statistically successful way to bet on the NHL.
Since 2005, the losing team has won 51.8% of games after a loss. That’s around the same numbers as we see in the NBA, which gives the zig-zag theory in some credence for hockey betting.
If you look at just the last four years, that percentage has actually crept up towards the 55% threshold.
The main driver of this comes right back to parity. With teams being relatively close in skill, it’s easier for a team to rebound after a loss and win. It’s certainly not a foolproof method, but it’s profitable if you’re simply placing bets on the losing team.
Here’s a breakdown of three series from the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs to give you an idea of how the zig-zag can be applied.
Example #1: 2018 2nd Round, Winnipeg Jets vs. Nashville Predators
Based on the NHL’s playoff format these two Western Conference powerhouses were always destined for an epic clash in Round 2. The two teams put on a show and didn’t disappoint.
They also helped proponents of the zig-zag theory, and anyone who bet using the theory in this series won 100% of their bets. The Winnipeg Jets took Game 1, and the two teams traded wins the entire series.
We had an example in the NBA of the stacked Warriors facing the depleted Cavaliers in the 2018 Finals. Well, there wasn’t much separating the two teams in this series, and it showed with the zig-zag results.
Example #2: 2018 1st Round, Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Boston Bruins
This series pitted another two supremely talented teams against each other. Based on talent this matchup should have taken place later in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but that’s just the downside of the current format.
Once the puck dropped on the series, it sure didn’t look like two teams who were neck-and-neck in the standings. Boston took Game 1 5-1, and the zig-zag would have let you down for Game 2, with the Bruins giving the Leafs a 3-1 thumping.
Betting on the Leafs in Game 3 would have be an astute bet, since they played their hearts out and won on home ice. The Bruins then stole Game 4 on the road to take a 3-1 series lead.
Based on how close these teams were in the regular season, it made sense to bet on the Leafs in Game 5 to make it a close series. They won that game and they also won Game 6 on the road to push the series to seven games
The zig-zag becomes secondary when you get to Game 7. Statistically, the Bruins were the better team in the series, and they took Game 7 at home.
Example #3: 2018 Stanley Cup Finals, Washington Capitals vs. Vegas Golden Knights
The Vegas Golden Knights kept up their improbable playoff run by winning a close Game 1 on home ice. Washington rebounded in another close matchup in Game 2 with a win of their own, tying the series and rewarding zig-zag bettors.
But that’s where the zig-zag theory stopped working completely in this series.
Betting on the Golden Knights had to be frustrating for thousands of sports bettors out there when their luck finally ran out in the Stanley Cup Finals. Washington had more talent and more momentum. They ended up winning Games 3 and 4 before lifting the Stanley Cup in Vegas in Game 5.
Start Using the Zig-Zag Betting Theory Now
If you had to come up with one word to epitomize the zig-zag theory it would be this: simple.
But even though the zig-zag theory is one of the easiest sportsbetting strategies to understand, don’t let its simplicity fool you into thinking it works every time in all situations.
Study the material in this guide and learn to spot opportunities when the zig-zag theory is more likely to pay off. Start by testing it out with smaller wagers and when you get more confident spotting good bets, start betting more.
Also make sure to stay up to date on how league factors affect the zig-zag theory’s chances. Remember, its success rate is going down in the NBA but up in the NHL.
However you choose to use it, just remember that the goal is to have fun and make money from sports betting. If your bankroll starts zig-zagging dramatically using this theory, consider scaling it back.