What is a parlay?

0 Comments 📁 Intel 🕔24.November 2013
What is a parlay?

There are many different methods to employ in sports gambling, from wagering on point spreads to totals to proposition bets. Professional gamblers, also known as “sharps” or “wiseguys,” tend to make the majority of their plays on straight bets – be it a point spread, an over, an under etc.

How is a Parlay Bet Different from a Straight Bet or a Teaser?

The public, on the other hand, favors what are known as “exotic bets.” These wagers fall primarily into two categories: teasers and parlays. Both require the bettor to string together multiple bets in an all-or-nothing proposition. In a teaser, bettors are able to manipulate the point spread to their advantage. However, the more points by which the bettor alters the spread, the more diminished the payout odds become. Add to that the fact that bookmaking is far from a flawless art, thus there are many instances when getting additional points can be irrelevant if the original spread is not accurate to begin with.

Parlay Bets Raise the Stakes

For that reason, parlays are the most desirable action for a recreational bettor looking to turn a small amount of money into something more substantial. There’s a reason parlays are widely branded as “sucker bets,” though, and that’s because simply put, for the majority of bettors, they are. Sportsbooks amass a high percentage of their profit on the backs of recreational gamblers who make reckless and generally uninformed parlays.

In that vein, what follows is an attempt to clearly define parlays while laying out guidelines and strategy tips for betting them.

Defining an off-the-board parlay

So what is a parlay? A parlay is a wager that involves a minimum of two bets, commonly known as “legs.” Depending on the sportsbook, parlay legs can include anything from point spreads to totals (over/unders) to moneylines (picking a straight winner on a sliding odds scale) to first-half bets on all of the above. Bettors can integrate multiple sports into their parlays, and the more legs included, the higher the payout odds become.

Any parlay in which bettors string together games, lines or totals of their choosing is called an “off-the-board” parlay, because quite literally, the legs of the parlay are being taken off the wagering board of a sportsbook. This is notable because since lines are always moving depending on the amount of money being wagered, bettors who have an idea of the direction in which a line is going to move can gain an advantage in constructing their parlays.

The caveat is that different sportsbooks will feature different lines, and very seldom will a bettor be able to get the best number on every leg of a parlay at the same book. Thus it’s up to the bettor to determine which leg is the most tenuous and which one can potentially sacrifice a half-point here or there in the name of locking in that weaker leg at the most favorable number.

What is a parlay card?

As opposed to an off-the-board parlay, NFL parlay cards are printed during the week and are set in stone. Which is to say the bookmakers must settle on a point spread for every game by Tuesday in advance of Sunday. This can be a risky proposition for the sportsbooks, because they lose the ability to move a line if it’s getting a lot of action. In the early days of sports betting in Las Vegas, the guys who ultimately became professionals in the industry made their money by exploiting weak numbers on parlay cards. Nowadays, the parlay cards are mainly a source of profit for the books, because the public bets them heavily and usually loses.

What is a parlay calculator and when does it come into play?

Whereas parlay cards feature fixed-odds payouts, off-the-board parlays are offered at “true odds,” meaning the bettor can handpick any sides, totals or moneylines to include in the wager. With numbers and prices always moving, a parlay calculator allows a bettor to know exactly what the payout will be on a given wager. Using the ParlayCity calculator, bettors can enter up to eight legs of a prospective parlay and watch as the true odds are immediately calculated.

Professional bettors and parlays

There has long existed the sucker-bet stigma associated with parlays, specifically that they’re pipe dreams for low-rollers and frat boys (also known as “squares”). Because such a large swath of the public bets parlays in a similar fashion as they would the lottery – and because the sportsbooks’ profitability rests in thriving off such action – it’s difficult to dispel the notion that they are indeed poor bets.

While there are certainly sharp guys who don’t get near parlays and openly deride anyone who favors them, that’s not to say that all sharps stay away from parlays. Professional bettors view themselves as commodity traders of the sports world, and like any successful speculator, many of them like to have diversified portfolios. Parlays, while not their choice wagers, are nevertheless a piece of many wiseguys’ portfolios.

Parlay strategy explained

For the sharp guys who do bet parlays, their rationale for employing them is frequently accompanied by the concept of “side/total correlation.” In a nutshell, side/total correlation is the relation between two teams and the expected style of game they will play when opposing one another.

For instance, Denver has scored points at an historic rate in 2013. So if there’s a game pitting the Broncos against Team Y and a wiseguy thinks Denver is going to cover a spread of X number of points against that team, then the Broncos and the over would be considered to have side/total correlation due to their prolific offense and suspect defense. Thus instead of wagering solely on the Broncos, the wiseguy would throw in the over and instead bet a two-team parlay.

A side/total correlated parlay at standard -110 odds pays out at 13/5, meaning if a $100 is wagered on the parlay, the bettor will receive $365 back (the original $100 bet plus the $265 payout, also known as the “max pay”). These types of parlays are considered to be the safest, mainly because there is strategy and causality involved in betting them.

While a 13/5 payout isn’t something a recreational gambler is going to be very enthusiastic about, there is a way to beef up the payout odds without venturing into sucker-bet territory. On any given NFL slate, there is almost always at least one game where a moderate underdog has at least a 50 percent chance of winning outright. It may be a good team going on the road against a better team, or a contest pitting unevenly matched division rivals, but a matchup in which records and stats can be thrown out the window because of the nature of the rivalry (think Patriots-Jets or Giants-Cowboys).

By taking that original conservative, correlated parlay and adding a +150 moneyline underdog to it, the payout odds jump from 13/5 to 8/1.  Suddenly a recreational bettor’s $20 parlay is carrying some thump, and as opposed to the five-team pipe dream, there’s a solid chance of it turning into a winner.

Hedging as a safeguard to sustaining tough losses

Of course, there are those who simply can’t stay away from indulging in that five- or six-team monster. For ten bucks at 25/1 odds, you might as well let it ride. But on the chance that a recreational gambler is going for the big score (ie laying upwards of $100 or more), hedging should always be part of one’s system.

The most sound strategy for trying to guarantee money is to include the favored team in either the Sunday or Monday night game as the anchor leg of a parlay (unless the underdog moneyline is perceived to be a positive-expectation wager). For example, if New England is hosting the Jets on Sunday Night Football, bettors should make the Patriots moneyline (which would probably be in the -250 range) the final leg – be it leg No. 5, No. 6 etc. – of their parlay. So if a recreational gambler has laid $100 on that five-teamer paying out at 25/1, the max pay would be $2,600 (with the Patriots -250 moneyline turning a 17.5/1 four-teamer into 25/1).

While adding a heavy favorite like New England turns a huge payout into an enormous one, there’s nonetheless nothing worse than losing a parlay on the final leg. Moreover, to have so much profit riding on one potential bounce of the ball is playing with fire and potentially creating the most nauseating of losing scenarios.

However, because the anchor leg of the parlay is a standalone game in primetime and the favored Patriots are the team being wagered, if a bettor is fortunate enough to slog through the first four or five legs, there is suddenly a nice window in which to hedge before the primetime game kicks off. Thus you can now turn around and lay $250 straight on the Jets moneyline (which would be around +200). If New England wins, you still pull down $2,250 in profit. And if the Jets pull the upset, you can take solace in having guaranteed yourself $500 ($400 profit).


Like all wagers, a parlay is an investment. Yet many recreational gamblers who bet them view them more as akin to buying a lottery ticket – consciously or otherwise – which in turn drives that sucker-bet stigma. The profitability of parlays may be directly tied to the difficulty of winning them, but when a bit of strategy and restraint is employed, a parlay can quickly morph from a pipe dream into a realistically profitable venture. Not to mention one of the most exhilarating and satisfying triumphs a bettor can experience at the sportsbook.

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