What is parlay betting? Pros and cons

The more bets you include, the bigger the potential payout.

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Parlay betting is a high-risk, high-reward style of betting. It allows you to combine multiple bets into a single wager to try to multiply your winnings. The more bets you include, the bigger the potential payout. That said, you need to win each individual wager in order to win the bet. If just one leg of your parlay loses, the entire bet is graded as a loser.

These bets are typically frowned up by most professional gamblers because they will eat up your bankroll if you aren’t careful. Your win rate on combination bets is obviously going to be lower than on individual bets, so parlays shouldn’t make up a large portion of your betting portfolio.

How to build a parlay

Parlays can be built using as few as two individual wagers or as many as 15. These bets can include spread bets, moneyline bets, or over/unders. Some sportsbooks will even allow you to include player prop bets in a parlay.

The most common parlay sizes are just two or three teams. Once you get to a four-team parlay or greater, the house starts to gain a substantial edge on the player.

This can be quantified using some simple math.

Common parlay odds

Let’s look at a simple two-team parlay. These will generally be paid out at +260 — or 2.6 to 1 — on two standard -110 wagers. This means a $100 wager will net you a profit of $260 if you win both bets, leaving you with a total bankroll of $360.

That’s pretty appealing on the surface, but how does it compare to rolling the same $100 over into two separate bets? If you took your $100 and bet it on the first half of the wager, a win would increase your bankroll to $191.90. You could then roll your increased bankroll over to the second bet, and if that wager wins, you would wind up with a total bankroll of $364.43. That puts the parlay in the same ballpark as the individual wagers, with a slight benefit to the “rollover” method.

This edge is amplified with each additional team you add to your bet. If we use standard -110 odds, you can see the parlay becomes a “sucker bet” once you hit the four team mark.

Number of TeamsTrue OddsParlay OddsHouse Edge
2+264.43+260+0.04 units
3+596.79+600-0.03 units
4+1230.86+1000+2.31 units
5+2441.95+2000+4.42 units
6+4755.12+4000+7.55 units
7+9173.28+8000+11.73 units
8+17711.97+15000+27.12 units

Ultimately, you’re giving away more than 2.3 units of value on a four-team parlay and a whopping 27 units of value on an eight-team parlay. Compared to a three-team parlay — which actually gives the player a slight edge in value — it’s pretty clear why large parlays are a losing proposition.

That said, if you do have your heart set on placing a big parlay (and who doesn’t love to throw a dart from time to time?), shop around to ensure you’re getting the best odds. Some sportsbooks will offer better odds than others on certain parlay sizes.

Calculating parlay odds

If you’re interested in calculating your own “true odds” for a parlay, the formula is fairly simple. The first thing you have to do is convert the moneyline odds to decimal odds, by simply taking the total potential payout for each individual leg of the parlay and dividing it by the initial wager.

Lets go back to our original example. If we bet $110 on a wager with standard -110 odds, the potential payout would be $210 ($110 original wager + $100 profit). So our resulting fraction would be 210/110, which converts to 1.91 when expressed as a decimal.

You would then calculate the decimal odds for each remaining leg of the parlay and multiply them together to get the true odds for the entire wager. The only thing left to do is subtract your initial wager to identify the potential profit.

Of course, doing that math yourself isn’t exactly necessary given all the technology available today. Parlay calculators are widely available across the industry, so you don’t need to do any of the heavy lifting.

Feb 28, 2020; Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) skates with the puck against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. Colorado won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
[4:38 AM]

Types of parlays

The most common types of parlays are built using straightforward lines. These can be over/unders, moneylines, or spread bets, and they can come from a variety of sports. For example, you can bet an NFL over/under, an NBA spread, and an MLB moneyline all in the same parlay. The overall odds for each bet will ultimately determine the payout.

As always, you need to win each individual wager in order for your parlay to be a winner. The only exception would be if you push on one of the legs.

Let’s go back to our hypothetical example. Let’s say the NFL over/under lands exactly on the total, but your NBA spread and MLB moneyline are both winners. In that situation, the NFL portion of your wager would be removed from the equation and your parlay would drop from three teams to two.

There are other types of combination bets that can be considered a part of the parlay family.

Teasers

Teasers are reserved for NFL and NBA betting because they relate specifically to point spreads and totals. You also can’t mix-and-match with teasers the same way you can with traditional parlays: all bets for each teaser are focused either on football or basketball.

Teasers work by assigning extra points to each spread or over/under. Let’s look at an example.

Let’s say that you like three different bets for a specific NFL Sunday: Kansas City -7, Green Bay -3, and Miami/Buffalo over 42.5. If you bet those three outcomes in a parlay, you would get approximately +600 odds on that wager. That said, if just one bet fails to cover, you lose your entire parlay.

If you’re looking for a little more safety, a teaser allows you to adjust the spreads in your favor for each of those individual bets. A seven-point teaser would leave you with Kansas City pk, Green Bay +4, and Miami/Buffalo over 35.5. This is clearly a much easier bet to win than our original example.

But of course, all of those points are going to cost you. Instead of the traditional +600 payout on a three-team parlay, a three-team seven-point teaser drops the odds down to +150.

Just like parlays, your potential payout increases with each wager you add to your teaser bet. Teaser betting can definitely result in profitability, but there are some clear dos and don’ts to keep in mind.

Pleasers

Pleasers aren’t a very popular form of betting because they’re among the hardest bets to win. In fact, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if your sportsbook doesn’t even offer them.

If they are available at your sportsbook, a pleaser works in the exact opposite way of a teaser.

In our teaser example, we were able to drop the spreads from Kansas City -7 to Kansas City pk, Green Bay -3 to Green Bay +4, and Miami/Buffalo over 42.5 to over 35.5. In a seven-point pleaser, those spreads would actually adjust by seven points in the other direction, leaving us with Kansas City -14, Green Bay -10, and Miami/Buffalo over 49.5. Like I said, these are tough bets to win.

Still, they reward you handsomely if you are able to pull them off. Prices will vary at different locations, but you can expect to get roughly +2500 on a three-team seven-point NFL pleaser.

Round Robins

Round robins gave you slightly more safety than a traditional parlay. They require you to select at least three unique lines, before those plays are broken down to form smaller, separate parlays.

Let’s go back once again to our NFL example. If you wanted to place those three bets in a round robin, it would be broken into three separate two-team parlays:

  • Kansas City -7, Green Bay -3
  • Kansas City -7, Miami/Buffalo over 42.5
  • Green Bay -3, Miami/Buffalo over 42.5

The upside to setting up a round robin in this format is you can still turn a profit if one of these teams loses. You’ll still win one of those bets, and the profit on that wager will be enough to cover the losses on the other two (assuming -110 odds).

The downside is that you need to place three separate wagers instead of one. If you wanted to wager $100 for example, you would need to break that down to three separate $33 wagers. You also won’t see as much profit when winning all three wagers as you would with a traditional parlay. That’s the price you have to pay for the increased security.

Round robins can be broken down further in situations with more teams. For example, if you like five separate teams, you can break those down into two-team round robins, three-team round robins, or four-team round robins. Just remember the further you break it down, the more wagers you’ll have to place to cover every scenario.

Round robins can be a great way to get some increased upside in your betting portfolio without taking on as much downside as a traditional parlay.

Parlay Strategy

The reason parlays can be frowned upon by sports betting enthusiasts is because of the low win rate. There are, however, some things you can do to increase your profitability.

For starters, you can try to correlate your parlays with bets that compliment each other. A true correlated parlay is not allowed — for example, you can’t take the Celtics spread and moneyline in the same parlay — but that doesn’t mean you can’t look for bets that fit a narrative story.

Let’s look at another hypothetical example. Say the Saints are playing at home as 14-point favorites. If you think they will cover the spread, it stands to reason they are going to score a bunch of points. If you think they can score a bunch of points, you might want to think about pairing the Saints with the over in that contest. Of course, it is possible for the Saints to cover the spread and not hit the over, but those bets do appear to have a positive correlation.

Another optimal way to use parlays is by staggering the times of the games you include. In the NFL, this could mean one game at 1 p.m. ET, one at 4:25 p.m. ET, and the Sunday night football contest. If you win the first two games, it gives you an opportunity to hedge before the third game to lock in a profit.

This strategy is applicable to all sports with different start times.

Another strategy when using parlays is to circumvent betting limits. This probably isn’t applicable to a ton of people, but let’s say you absolutely love the total on an MLB game that opens early in the day. The betting limits on baseball can be much smaller than an NFL game, so certain pro bettors will lump that bet into a bunch of small parlays to increase the amount of money they can put down on the MLB game.

Finally, don’t be afraid to include some underdogs in a parlay. We already know these are relatively high-risk propositions. Doing a four-team moneyline parlay with a bunch of big favorites can feel like a safe bet, but even the best teams lose more than you think. A 100-win baseball team wins roughly 60% of their games. The same is true for the NFL, where the majority of teams win somewhere between 5 and 10 games.

Since these bets are already pretty volatile, why not embrace the risk and add some moneyline underdogs to your parlay? I wouldn’t go crazy, but adding a sharp underdog — possibly with some reverse line movement — is a nice way to multiply your payday when everything breaks right.

Summary

Betting on parlays is like eating bacon. Bacon is delicious and parlays are a lot of fun! Who doesn’t want to try to risk a few dollars to take home a huge score? That’s the backbone of the entire gambling industry.

But keep in mind, you would never want your diet to consist entirely of bacon. The same goes for your parlay strategy. Dropping your entire bankroll into intricate parlays is a great way to send your sports betting career to an early grave.

Parlays are at their most powerful when you keep the wagers to a minimum. Two and three-team parlays give virtually no monetary edge to the sportsbook, and they’re not as difficult to win. You’ll likely still want to make straight bets on those teams, but grouping them together for a small parlay wager can increase the upside of your portfolio on nights when you smash.

If you do want to go with a larger parlay — and I would top it at five teams or so — consider turning those bets into a teaser or round robin. That does lower the upside, but you’re going to turn a profit on those wagers at a much higher frequency.

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