How to Bet Parlays
by Trevor Whenham
With football season upon us, it is time to take a deeper look at parlays. A parlay is a group of straight bets grouped into a single bet. If you were to play a three-team parlay, for example, it would be as if you bet on the first game, took your initial bet plus all the profits and bet them on the second game, and then rolled everything onto the third game. By betting a parlay you are getting a better payoff than you would if you were just to straight bet those games. Much better, in this case. If you got all three games correct, you would make a profit of $273 on $100 bets by straight betting, but you would have netted $600 on the parlay. You can bet a two-team parlay, or you can combine as many teams as you want on one ticket. A 10-team parlay would pay 700/1 at most sportsbooks, for example. Sounds great. But does playing parlays make sense in the long term?
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There is one thing that is certain - the sportsbooks certainly want you to play the parlays, and the more teams you play, the happier they are. The house has a big edge on the parlays and the edge gets larger as you include more teams. That's because the payout for each wager is lower than the true odds for the bet. Take a two-team parlay, for example. There are four possible outcomes for two games - you can win both of them, lose both of them, win the first and lose the second, or win the second and lose the first. Of those four, only one of them would be a winning parlay bet. That means you have a one in four chance of winning, or true odds of 3/1. The payout on a two team parlay is just 13/5 at most shops. That's a house edge of 10 percent. It gets worse the more teams that you include. There are 256 possible outcomes in an eight-team parlay, making the odds against winning it 255/1. The bet only pays 150/1, giving the house more than a 41 percent edge. Giving up that much of an edge is too much to handle for many bettors (and for good reason), so many sharp bettors prefer to make straight bets instead of parlays.
A big challenge of betting parlays regularly is overcoming the psychological and financial challenges they present. In a combination of three games there are eight different possible outcomes - ABC, ABc, AbC, aBC, abC, aBc, Abc, and abc. If you are straight betting on those games you will win at least one bet in seven of those eight cases, and you will make a profit in half of the outcomes. If you are betting a parlay you would lose your wager in seven of those eight cases and would enjoy a large payout the eighth time. As a parlay bettor, then, you need to make sure that you have the proper mindset to endure long stretches of losses, and you need to make sure that you have a large enough bankroll to weather the huge swings that you can face betting them, even if you are ultimately profitable.
Another problem with parlays, especially with football, which has relatively few games per week, is that betting parlays can turn a decent weekend into a bad one. If you have done your analysis and handicapping (or paid to have someone do it for you), you may come up with just a few games each weekend that are worth playing. If you picked three games and played two of them correctly, you would have a profitable weekend if you were straight betting. You would have bet, say, $300 in total, and made a tidy profit of $82. That's a return on investment of more than 27 percent, and there is nothing wrong with that. By betting the same three games in a parlay you would have lost your wager. Even a good parlay player could reasonably go several weeks without a win. Parlays, then, are an all-or-nothing proposition, which turns off a lot of both serious and casual players.
There are some cases in which playing a parlay may make sense. One case is if you have strong feelings about three (or any other number) of games, but you don't have a big enough bankroll to profit from your strong feeling as much as you would like to. Say you have $150 to bet with. By straight betting $50 on each game, you would end up with a profit of $136 if you were right on all of the games. By betting that same $150 on a three team parlay you would make a profit of $900 if you win. In both cases your worst-case scenario is the same - a loss of $150. For some, the potential winnings more than make up for the edge you are sacrificing and the higher risk of ending up with nothing.
So are parlays worth betting? No. And yes. It depends on why you want to bet them. For a serious bettor concerned about slow, long term gains then they cost you too much to make them worthwhile. For a player who is looking for excitement and potential big paydays, however, they may be just the ticket. You just have to decide what works for you.