What is a Parlay?

Every gambler, young or old, has heard a story about someone hitting an eight team parlay and been filled with dreams of Vegas glory. In this article, we break down what parlay’s are, why they are ostensibly viewed as sucker bets, and how to turn the odds in your favor. The short answer to how to get the best parlay odds, is almost always going to be “have less teams”, except in one example which, trust me, we will get to. 

A Parlay is simply a type of bet with more than one item on the betting ticket. Every team that is added to the parlay card doubles the odds returned. So a two team parlay pays out at 2.6 to 1, a three team parlay pays out 6 to 1, a 4 team parlay pays out 12 to 1…etc. **Note that these odds are assuming a standard -110 team/selection is being added to the parlay card. More on that in a moment. 

However in order to win this bet and receive the full payout, ALL the items on the bet slip must win. If one of the items loses it’s a losing ticket. If one of the items splits, then that action is factored out of the parlay and your odds are dropped to the amount of live plays still on the ticket. I.E. If it’s a three team parlay and two hit but one splits, the ticket pays out as if it was a two team parlay. 

Though most readers probably do not want to hear it, parlay’s are generally considered a sucker’s bet. This is because the odds of a winning a parlay do not scale with the odds that Vegas (or your online sportsbook) pay out. One quick example and then we’ll get to the fun stuff. For any given game, there are two potential outcomes. A win and a loss. For any two games, therefore there are four potential outcomes. 

  1. win/win
  2. win/lose
  3. lose/lose
  4. lose/win

Therefore the odds of hitting a two team parlay are 1 in 4. However, noting above, Vegas only pays out 2.6 to 1 for winning a two team parlay. If we move to a three team parlay, the odds are even worse. In a three team parlay, there are now 8 potential outcomes (1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2), however the payout is only 6 to 1 (1/2 + 1/2 +1/2). Add as many teams as you like, the math on each side of the equation remains the same.

Looking for Correlations Within Parlay’s

The only tried and true method of “beating” the system is to look for outcomes that are implied by factoring things such as style of play, expected game flow, and all matters of externalities. Let’s take a look at some theoretical examples, starting with college football. 

The classic example features an up-tempo team (think a Chip Kelly Oregon team) playing a run heavy, defensive oriented team (think Wisconsin). In this example, instead of a straight bet, one would, theoretically, either take (a) Wisconsin and the Under or (b) Oregon and the Over as one of the styles is going to win the day. Let’s get less abstract.  

Let’s say that 80% of double digit home favorites who lose the first quarter, cover the second quarter spread. Obviously, we’re assuming that gambler in this example has some belief that a first quarter upset is likely. What we’re interested in is maximizing the return on that “insight.” Whether it be a parlay, an upset, or a prop bet Vegas’ take is always priced into the payout odds. The goal is to maximize any perceived insight by the bettor. 

Now in this example, the strategy would be clear. One ould parlay with the first quarter money line, then the second quarter favorite with the spread.

If you just tried to do this, you probably realized that most sports books do not allow for such parlays (within quarters). This is for the same reason that they do not allow same game parlay’s between spreads and totals when spreads are in excess of 14 points. This is how sports books typically safeguard themselves from . If the spreads become large enough they ultimately rub up against a game’s total thereby increasing the likelihood of both items hitting. In other words, if a team is favored by 35 and the total is 38, there’s a very good chance that BOTH outcomes are going to be decided by whether the team that’s favored covers the 35 points.