Parlays represent one of the most popular forms of sports betting — one that is very profitable for bookmakers.
A parlay is a very simple form of betting that requires bettors to pick the winner of two or more outcomes. Parlays can be comprised of as few as two legs to as many as the individual bookmaker will accept, and they require all legs to win for bettors to collect.
Parlays are generally branded as “sucker bets.” They attract bettors through the allure of a big potential payoff. But the real winners from parlay betting are undoubtedly bookmakers, who have them to thank for a significant proportion of their hold.
That sense of hope derives from the fact that parlays can pay significant sums for very little outlay. Parlay odds are derived by multiplying the odds of each leg, and these can add up quickly. For example, a three-leg moneyline parlay of +110, +120 and +150 pays at +1055 odds. So for a $10 parlay you can collect $115.50, with a profit of $105.50.
Big wins. Small outlay. This appeals to many recreational bettors. What they fail to account for, though, is the difficulty of finding more than one winner and the fact that including low-value legs multiplies the likelihood of defeat. Understanding probability and expected value are essential when betting parlays.
In the above example, if one of those legs loses and two win, the bettor receives nothing. Had that bettor wagered $3 on each individual leg, he or she would have recorded a small profit rather than a 100% loss.
One “strategy” that is typically used by many public bettors is to parlay a lot of short-priced favorites, figuring they’ve found a number of “easy wins” and are getting inflated odds. This is fool’s gold. The best example of this usually comes on College Football Saturdays, when recreational bettors go across the board looking for big-name programs, finding 10 or 12 teams at -1000, -1200, -800 etc. and try to get better than +100 for the overall parlay payout. These types of teams don’t always hold value — in fact, because many are public teams, very few do — and it is fairly common for at least one big favorite to go down on a given weekend.
While parlay betting is, for the most part, avoided by sharp bettors, there are times parlays can present excellent value.
At its simplest, a parlay can provide value if all of the legs included offer value. That is, if bettors are sure they have a proven, discernible edge on each leg of a parlay, the overall parlay will present positive expected value.
There are other angles where value can be provided in a parlay as well. A great example of this is betting the spread and total in the same game. The underdog and the under, particularly in a game with a low total, can prove excellent value and even more so if it is a contest that is set to be impacted by bad weather. The reason is simple: with fewer points expected to be scored, it will be harder for a favorite to cover a big line.
For the most part, though, bettors should be wary of parlays. The odds, quite simply, aren’t in your favor.