Just as you can buy a stock because you think the price will go up or short a stock when you think its price is going to drop, an option allows you to bet on which direction you think the price of a stock will go. But instead of buying or shorting the asset outright, when you buy an option you’re buying a contract that allows — but doesn’t obligate — you to do a number of things, including:
Because options prices can be modeled mathematically with a model such as the Black-Scholes, many of the risks associated with options can also be modeled and understood. This particular feature of options actually makes them arguably less risky than other asset classes, or at least allows the risks associated with options to be understood and evaluated. Individual risks have been assigned Greek letter names, and are sometimes referred to simply as "the Greeks."
If in six months the market crashes by 20% (500 points on the index), he or she has made 250 points by being able to sell the index at $2250 when it is trading at $2000—a combined loss of just 10%. In fact, even if the market drops to zero, the loss would only be 10% if this put option is held. Again, purchasing the option will carry a cost (the premium), and if the market doesn’t drop during that period, the maximum loss on the option is just the premium spent.
An option remains valuable only if the stock price closes the option’s expiration period “in the money.” That means either above or below the strike price. (For call options, it’s above the strike; for put options, it’s below the strike.) You’ll want to buy an option with a strike price that reflects where you predict the stock will be during the option’s lifetime.
Still other traders can make the mistake of thinking that cheaper is better. For options, this isn't necessarily true. The cheaper an option's premium is, the more "out of the money" the option typically is, which can be a riskier investment with less profit potential if it goes wrong. Buying "out of the money" call or put options means you want the underlying security to drastically change in value, which isn't always predictable.
When buying or selling options, the investor or trader has the right to exercise that option at any point up until the expiration date - so simply buying or selling an option doesn't mean you actually have to exercise it at the buy/sell point. Because of this system, options are considered derivative securities - which means their price is derived from something else (in this case, from the value of assets like the market, securities or other underlying instruments). For this reason, options are often considered less risky than stocks (if used correctly).