The Zig-Zag Theory Explained

What Is Zig-Zag Theory in Sports Betting and How to Use It

There are quite a few theories you’ll hear from bettors that supposedly work. Some support the idea that you can only win by betting less than 2% of your bankroll. Others believe that systems such as the Martingale and Labouchere are key to winning in the long run. The fact is that not all the theories work, but the successful one is the zig-zag theory in betting.

This theory is often used in NBA matches and revolves around a team that has lost a big game and enters the next one motivated. It’s a widely popular theory in NBA wagering, and many bettors swear by it. To learn more about it, you should read our BetZillion guide below.

What Is Zig-Zag Theory?

The zig-zag theory was invented by a successful handicapper named Tony Salinas. Salinas believed that all games in the NBA and NHL are affected by the matches before them. He specifically thought that almost all bookies rarely account for it instead of focusing on less important factors such as home advantage.

The zig-zag theory definition claims that teams are more likely to win after losing the previous one. Salinas based his theory on the fact that no team has come back after being 3-0 down in a best of 7 series. Teams 2-0 down heading into the 3rd match won it 60% of the time, even if they were in poor form and were the lower seed.

The idea behind it was that bookies usually underestimate teams in that position. They’ve already lost 2 matches in a row, so they aren’t likely to win the next one. Also known as the NBA and NHL zig-zag theory, it can be applied to most sports but is specifically designed for these leagues. Of course, it’s not a proven theory, but the prevalence of teams that win their games after going 2-0 down holds significant value in sports betting.

How Does Zig-Zag Theory Work?

In the simplest terms, the zig-zag theory suggests that when a team loses one match, it should cover the spread in the next. Bouncing back from losses is not easy for squads, yet it’s a vital piece of the zig-zag theory. Of course, it’s not that superficial. The zig-zag betting strategy also considers the home and away teams and their recent form.

As mentioned earlier, it mainly applies to the NBA, the NFL, and the NHL, where spread bets work best.

NBA Zig-Zag Theory

As mentioned, the zig-zag theory involves backing the losing team to win the next matchup in the playoffs. Due to its nature, the theory has recorded remarkable successes in the NBA. Punters can apply zig-zag in a few different ways, including:

  • In Game 1 of a playoff series, the home team is likely to win. However, according to the zig-zag theory, if the home team loses the game, they are likely to win Game 2.
  • According to the zig-zag theory, a team that has experienced two losses in a row since the beginning of the playoff series is likely to win Game 3 with a winning probability of 60%. It is because the team will be motivated to avoid being swept away.

A punter that finds such scenarios during the NBA playoffs can take advantage of this to get in on some actions.

A typical example of the zig-zag theory happened during the 2022 NBA finals, with the Golden State Warriors playing against the Boston Celtics. The Celtics took the first victory in Game 1 of the series beating the Warriors. Based on this loss and the zig-zag theory, the Warriors have a 70% chance to win Game 2, which they managed to do. In Game 3, the Celtics recovered from its first loss and achieved another victory, resulting in a 2-1 lead. The Warriors then made another comeback in Game 4 to tie the series again and then went on to win the next two games.

Another example of where the zig-zag theory applies in the NBA was during the 2021 NBA finals, where the Phoenix Suns played against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Suns clinched the first victory in Game 1 of the series and then went on to win Game 2. According to the Zig-zag theory, the Bucks are most likely to win Game 3 to avoid being swept away, which they managed to do. A punter that uses this theory would have won the bet. After their win in Game 3, the Bucks won the remaining games in the series, finishing with a 4-2 record, a remarkable comeback.

Some Things to Consider for the NBA and Zig-Zag Theory

One important thing to remember when you engage in zig-zagging is that the theory is not foolproof. While it is often correct, many games have proved it wrong. As a result, any punter interested in engaging the zig-zag theory must always look beyond the tactic to other factors that can affect the eventual outcome of a game. Some factors include the home court advantage, opposing teams’ dynamic, recent performances, head-to-head record, injuries and suspensions, and others.

Brief History of Zig-Zag Theory in NBA

The zig-zag theory has existed in the sports betting industry for a few decades but became popular in the NBA during the 1990s. In the 1990s, several teams won the next match after losing Game 1 of the playoff series. It allowed bettors to enjoy incredible payouts with their zig-zag bets from 1990 to 2000.

Marc Lawrence, a professional bettor, analyzed this theory in the NBA to see how it has evolved. He discovered that the theory had changed drastically and became less effective. Lawrence found that from 1991 to 2000, utilizing the zig-zag theory (i.e., backing the losing team in Game 2) yielded a 56% success rate. It is a great odds for punters.

However, things soon changed. From 2001 to the present day, Lawrence discovered the success rate for zig-zag betting in the NBA is 51.5%. It is a far cry from the rate in the Golden 90s, but it is still a decent win rate that sharp punters can exploit to their advantage.

Why the NBA Zig-Zag Theory has Changed

The Zig-zag theory has become less effective in the NBA than in the 1990s. There are a few reasons why this is the case. One of the most significant factors that have changed the NBA landscape for the zig-zag theory is the emergence of super teams. It wasn’t prevalent in the 1990s as it is now. The rise of these teams means they are sweeping the series more than ever, making it difficult for Zig-zag to be effective.

Some of the other contributing factors to the change include:

  • Evolution in team strategies
  • Availability of analytics and advanced metrics
  • Changes in playoff formats
  • Variability in home court advantage

NHL Zig-Zag Theory

The NHL is the other major sports league where the zig-zag theory applies effectively. During the playoff series, losing teams can make a comeback to avoid being swept away by their opponent. Like in the NBA, you can apply the theory here to back a losing team to win Game 2. You can also back such a team to win Game 3 after two consecutive losses in the first two games in the series.

A typical example of the zig-zag theory in operations in the NHL would be during the 2020 Stanley Cup final, which pitted the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Dallas Stars. The Stars took the lead in Game 1 of the series. The Lighting came back in a close match in Game 2, tying the series and creating an ideal outcome for zig-zag punters. The Lightning then went on to take the lead well into Game 4 with a 3-1 result. The Stars rebounded slightly in Game 5 to stay in the game, creating another opportunity for zig-zag bettors. However, the Lightning won the series in Game 6 with a 4-2 lead.

Another example of the zig-zag theory in practice can be seen during the 2022 Stanley Cup finals, where the Tampa Bay Lightning played against the Colorado Avalanche. The series started with the Avalanche leading during the first two games. A zig-zag theory opened up in Game 3 as the Lightning were motivated to make a comeback, which they ended up doing. The next opportunity came up in Game 5, where the Avalanche were already in the lead with 3-1. Based on the zig-zag theory, the Lightning will win Game 5 to stay in, which they managed to do. However, they lost Game 6, leaving the Avalanche in a 4-2 lead for the series win.

Some Things to Consider for the NHL and Zig-Zag Theory

Like the NBA, you should always watch for other factors influencing a matchup between two opposing teams. Don’t rely on the zig-zag theory alone, as it is not always right. Factors like player injury or suspension, coaching strategy, goalie performance, home ice advantage, recent form, etc., can all impact the eventual outcome of a game.

Factors to Look for When Betting Zig-Zag Theory

It would help to look for a few factors when using this theory in practice.

Home Team Leads 1-0

In over 50% of the postseason games in the NBA, NFL, and NHL, the home team takes the first game. It presents an excellent opportunity to bet on the underdog for the second game.

Home Team Takes a 2-0 Lead

When the home team takes a commanding 2-0 lead, the third game wins in over 60% of the cases, proving the zig-zag theory in sports betting works like a charm.

Home Team Loses the First Game

If the home team loses the first game, you should spend money on winning the next one. No one likes to lose the home advantage, especially to a low-seeded team, so the favourites usually win the second game if they surprisingly lose the first one.

Reasons to Use Zig-Zag Theory Cautiously

There is no denying that the zig-zag theory can be an effective strategy to win some payday in online betting. However, it’s essential to remember that, like every betting tactic, this one is not foolproof. It is a guideline and a resource based on historical statistics and probabilities that can aid punters in making good betting decisions.

So, it is crucial to be cautious when implementing the zig-zag theory in your betting strategy. Here are some key factors you should consider to increase your winning chances with zig-zag.

The Matchup

Before implementing the zig-zag theory, the most significant factor to consider is the matchup between the two teams involved in the game you are interested in. You should check out the records of both contenders and see how they have been performing.

You should also check out the history between the two teams and how they have faired in competitions against each other. Doing this will let you know if the matchup will skew in favor of a particular direction over the other.

Split Stats

The split stats is another essential consideration that punters must note before engaging the zig-zag theory. Split stats refers to how a team or player will perform in certain situations. For example, how will Lebron James perform in an upcoming game? What will he do against a specific team or division? And so on.

You can dig through sports database websites like Basketball Reference, Hockey Reference, and others to find split stats for the NBA or NHL games you want to apply zig-zag to. Checking out the split stats before placing playoff bets will aid you in making informed decisions with better chances of winning.


One simple fact about sports is that injuries happen every time, especially in more physical leagues like the NHL. And there is no denying that an injured key player during a matchup can affect a team’s performance. As such, this is an essential factor you should always be aware of before betting with the zig-zag theory. If you are not fully immersed in the sport or team you are wagering on, a quick online search will reveal the injury report.

So, confirm if there is an injury report for both teams involved in a game and see if it can influence your bet. It could save you from putting action on a losing game.


Like the injury factor, an important player’s suspension can disrupt a team’s performance during a matchup. So, this is another crucial factor you should consider before placing a wager based on the zig-zag theory, as a suspension can result in unpredictable outcomes. It is especially true when wagering on the NHL playoffs, as suspension happens more frequently.

So, you should find out if there is any suspended player and how that can affect your bet. You can easily do a quick online search to determine if the team you want to back has a suspension that may hamper its performance.

Other Things to Consider Before Applying Zig-Zag Theory

Besides the teams in a matchup, split stats, injuries, and suspension, you could consider many other things before implementing the zig-zag theory for your bet. Some of these are qualitative factors that you may be unable to browse and find online easily. Unlike the factors mentioned above, which are qualitative, these qualitative ones require reflection, critical thinking, and sometimes gut decisions. A few examples of these qualitative factors include team motivation and series momentum.

Team Motivation

Although checking out the statistics and numbers regarding the teams involved in a matchup is essential, their motivation to win is also vital. After all, if a team is not pumped to strive for the top position, their overall performances will naturally be subpar.

So, before you place your bet based on the zig-zag theory, the contenders’ motivation in the matchup is a vital factor you should consider.

Series Momentum

The series momentum is another essential factor before using the zig-zag theory. Although the theory essentially backs the losing team, this is not always the best action. You should always consider how a team lost a game and how that has influenced their momentum before placing your bets on them. Was the loss they experienced so bad that you can’t imagine them succeeding in their next match? Or is a team having a terrible performance so far that betting on them seems like a poor decision?

Overall, while the figures and stats in a series are essential to making your zig-zag betting decisions, you should also consider qualitative and other factors that can come into play.

Taking Advantage of the Zig-Zag Theory

Now that you know how it works in the NBA and NHL, let’s discuss taking advantage of the zig-zag theory. As mentioned, it is essential to note that this theory is not a foolproof strategy, and you can miss it often. Here are some tips that can help you improve your chances of succeeding with zig-zag theory:

Tips Explanation
Use together with other betting strategies Zig-zag theory is not 100% guaranteed. So it is essential to use it with other betting strategies to improve its chances of hitting.
Only consider teams motivated to win The zig-zag theory is based on the idea that a motivated team is more likely to win after suffering a loss in its previous game during the playoffs, especially if it is a 2-0 loss. As a result, betting on a team that seems unmotivated would not be the best decision.
Target teams with an excellent home-court advantage The home-court advantage is a real concept in sports, especially in the NBA and NHL. Teams that play at home are more likely to win their matchup.
Bet on the teams performing well A team’s recent performance is generally a good indicator of how it will do in the future. So, you should always target teams with good performance for your zig-zag bet, as they are likely to perform even better to clinch a win.
Bet on teams with an excellent head-to-head If the two teams facing off have played each other recently, you should find out which has the better head-to-head record. They are more likely to win the game.
Be patient Like most betting strategies, the zig-zag theory is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It will take time and patience to be profitable in the long run.

Overall, it is essential to note that zig-zag is a tool to help you improve your winning chances and should not be considered alone.

Profitability of the Zig-Zag Theory

The zig-zag theory can be a profitable strategy to win bets online, but it is not a guaranteed way to win money. Statistics reveal that teams that have lost the previous two games in their series will win their third game nearly 60% of the time. After all, most teams are motivated not to lose the best of seven series and will push to score a first win on their third game to stand a fighting chance. However, you should also note that based on the statistics, around 40% or more teams in a zig-zag situation will still lose their games.

Ultimately, the profitability of the zig-zag theory depends on a few factors, from the specific teams involved in the matchup, injuries, suspensions, and other vital factors. Make sure you research to find the most profitable bets when you want to make a betting decision based on this theory.

Zig-Zag Theory Statistics

While there’s been no official stats research on the zig-zag theory, scenarios such as the home team winning game 1 occur in over 53% of cases. Around 65% of these teams went to win the series. It’s even better when you apply the theory to the underdog winning the 3rd game after losing the first 2, which happens nearly 60% of the time.

Once again, these stats are unofficial, but if you look at the past few seasons, you’ll see that the numbers match.

Is It Worth Using a Zig-Zag Theory?

Yes, it is, but you should always do it cautiously. Always read tips and strategies by experts before you take a deep dive into this solid theory. Make sure you use it at VIP bookmakers, too, as they offer better value on the odds to make the theory relevant and profitable.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is the zig-zag theory profitable?
    It can be profitable, but you must know it’s not bulletproof. In our zig-zag theory explained guide, we’ve shown that it works best on the 3rd game when the lower-seeded team trials 2-0. In that case, you can expect to win your bets in most cases, but still, there’s no guarantee.
  • How to use zig-zag theory in NBA playoffs betting?
    Using the zig-zag theory works best in the NBA playoffs. It’s especially great when the stronger team takes a 2-0 advantage by winning the first 2 home games. You can then put your money on the underdog, winning at home, which happens in almost 60% of the cases.
  • How to start using the zig-zag betting theory?
    You’ll need to do your research to start using the zig-zag theory. Please read tips, strategies, and expert predictions, and put your money on playoffs where it makes the most sense.
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    Tim E
    Betting Guru

    Tim is our betting guru. Every gaming site needs one, and Tim’s our guy. He has plenty of experience in betting online and is quite successful at it. Tim’s favorite sports are hockey, baseball, and Esports. Tim believes the latter to be the future of betting.

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