Parlays hold a special place in the lore of sports betting. Many are the stories of an insane parlay bet hitting for huge money against all odds. Hell, the climaxes of recent critically acclaimed movies “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Uncut Gems” both revolve around daring parlay bets.
So, what is a parlay? How does a parlay work? Should you bet parlays?
We’ll cover the answers to these questions and more here, as we go over all things parlay.
What is a parlay bet?
Different parts of the world have different terminologies for parlays. Depending on the sportsbook or the region, they may also be called “accumulators” or “multis.”
Whatever the name, the concept is fairly simple. A parlay bet simply combines multiple wagers into one bet. It does this by rolling over the winnings from each individual wager into the next leg of the wager. Each “leg” or individual bet in the parlay must win for the parlay to grade as a winner.
For example, take last season’s Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. According to Pro Football Reference, the Chiefs closed -3 on the spread with a betting total of 54.5 between the two teams.
Say a bettor wanted to place a wager on both the spread and the total, risking $100. They could simply take $50 and bet on the Bucs +3, then take the other $50 and take the under 54.5. When both bets win, our hero nets $90.90, assuming a -110 price on both bets.
Or, this same bettor could instead put both wagers into a $100 parlay, should he or she choose. Now, the bets become linked – both sides of the bet must win in order for the bet to win. This time, when the Bucs lift the Lombardi after their 31-9 victory, the bettor nets $264.
Quite a difference, right? But, before you go off and load the cannon to fire the bankroll on a bunch of parlays, read on.
How does a parlay bet pay out?
Again, when the sportsbook accepts the parlay bet, they set up a multi-level wager wherein each bet that wins becomes a bigger wager on the next leg.
In the above example with two standard -110 legs, the first bet becomes $100 on the Bucs +3 or the under 54.5. In this case both bets finish at the same time so it doesn’t matter which one represents the “first” leg. Since the Bucs +3 covered the spread, that $100 becomes $190.91.
Now, that $190.91 becomes the stake for the second leg, under 54.5. That came home as well, and a -110 bet for that price pays out $173.55. Add these up and you get $364.46.
Remember, the bettor started with a $100 stake, so $264.46 would represent the profit in this parlay bet.
If you’re trying to do some back of the envelope math to figure out what a parlay bet will pay out, a simple framework exists for -110 wagers. We’ve already seen that a two-teamer pays about 2.6-to-1. A three-teamer pays about 6-to-1, and the odds roughly double from there for every -110 bet added to the parlay.
Let’s look at some examples of how parlays would work with hypothetical bets from Week 1 of the NFL season. All of the lines to follow come from DraftKings Sportsbook. Since we’ve already broken down a two-team parlay, we’ll take a look at a three-team parlay and then a four-team parlay.
3-Leg parlay bet
Let’s start with a simple 3-team parlay on the moneyline, stringing together a few favorites. Many bettors enjoy playing these moneyline parlays because they feel confident in favored teams winning but they don’t want to lay long odds to win an amount well below the stake.
Here are three Week 1 NFL favorites that look like prime parlay fodder for many bettors:
- San Francisco 49ers (-380) at Detroit Lions
- Kansas City Chiefs (-320) vs. Cleveland Browns
- Baltimore Ravens (-250) at Las Vegas Raiders
The hypothetical bettor here puts down $100 parlaying these three teams. First up: San Francisco and Detroit on Sunday afternoon. Assuming San Francisco prevails, the bettor now has $126.32 in theoretical monies to roll over to the next bet – $26.32 in profit to go with the original stake.
That $126.32 becomes the risk on Kansas City. If the Chiefs win as expected, the bettor earns $39.48 more. Add that to the stake and they now have $165.80.
Fast forward to Monday night. The $165.80 goes down on Baltimore at -250 odds. The net earn this time would come to $66.12, for a total of $232.12. Subtract the original stake, and the bettor won $132.12.
Thus, the three-team parlay paid out about +132.
4-Leg parlay bet
Let’s say our hero wants to get a little more aggressive this time. Three-team moneyline favorites might feel safe but this one only paid +132. Unexciting.
How about a four-team parlay with a couple of spread picks and a couple of spicy underdogs the bettor thinks have a shot? Our hero really believes third-year breakouts are imminent from Daniel Jones and Kyler Murray. But they are down on the rookie class of QBs. So:
- New York Giants (+115)
- Arizona Cardinals (+140)
- Houston Texans +3 (-105)
- Carolina Panthers -5 (-105)
After the three early games come home, the bettor’s $100 stake becomes $914.83. That goes down on the Giants +115 on the moneyline, for a final payout of $1,966.80.
Notice that this payout comes up considerably higher than the rule of thumb we quoted earlier, which gives an estimate of about 12-to-1 for a four-team parlay. Small changes in the price – notice these prices are all better than -110 – make a large difference to the parlay payout.
The downside of parlay betting
Most sources will tell you parlays are a poor way to bet on sports, at least in terms of long-term expected value. That’s because for a parlay to have a positive expected value (+EV), all or almost all of the bets in the parlay must have a positive expected value.
This is a very difficult bar to clear, so most parlays simply make it easier for the sportsbook to win the bettors’ money. For evidence, simply check the revenue breakdown from any legal betting market. Sportsbooks consistently keep a larger portion of the money they take on parlays, by quite a margin too.
If that doesn’t convince you, an easy way to see it is to look at the expected value of the $100 parlay versus the expected value of two $50 spread bets, all at -110 prices. We’ll save you the math, but assuming exactly 50% probability of the individual bets winning here’s how it works out:
- Parlay: -$9
- Straight bets: -$4.55
If you want to hand the sportsbooks money at double the normal rate or faster, using parlays should do the trick.
The upside of parlays
Now, despite what the content in the sports betting industry overwhelmingly tells you, parlays are not the root of all evil. There are good reasons to bet parlays as well.
First and foremost, people enjoy sweating small bets that can win big. It’s the same logic that drives the popularity of the lottery.
Many people simply don’t care that they are placing a -EV bet. For them, betting isn’t necessarily about trying to make money long term, and that’s OK. Putting disposable income on a six-teamer that has next to no chance of coming home brings them entertainment. If they are betting responsibly and they enjoy parlays, then parlay away.
Second, +EV parlays definitely exist. We’ve already talked about parlaying winnings bets together to increase potential payout. But, even breakeven or -EV bettors can sometimes find winning parlay bets through a concept called correlation.
Correlated parlay bets
What if you could parlay two bets, but winning one bet increased the odds of winning the other bet? Well, turns out you can. These parlays are known as “correlated parlays.”
The most obvious example would be parlaying the first half over with the game’s total over. Very obviously, if the first-half total comes in, the overall total has become a favorite to win.
Since that’s incredibly obvious, sportsbooks have blocks in place to prevent you from betting these parlays. Or at least, they used to. Recently, “same-game parlays” (SGPs) have become a phenomenon in sports betting. But be warned, you must check the payouts on these before booking them and see how they compare to the individual bets parlayed together. Sportsbooks often fudge the payouts in accordance with the correlation, and that kills the +EV aspect of them.
In any case, some correlated parlays are allowed and pay out in full. A good potential example comes up in Week 6 of the 2021 NFL season. There, the KC Chiefs travel to Washington for a date with the Football Team.
Assuming things work out as expected, Kansas City has an incredibly potent offense while Washington will bring a very strong defense to bear. If the game winds up a high-scoring shootout, it’s very unlikely Washington can keep up. But, if the contest winds up low-scoring – likely going under the total – Washington has a much better chance of covering or winning.
If you agree with this premise then conceptually – Washington and the under are correlated bets. Therefore, placing them both in a parlay bet has a +EV if you’re correct.
What happens to my parlay bet if the game gets canceled?
Since parlay bets are made up of multiple legs, newer bettors often have questions about grading parlays. Obviously, a single loss dooms the parlay, but sometimes bets neither win nor lose.
First and most common would be a push. In the four-team parlay above, imagine Houston lost by three but the other legs won. In this case, the push simply drops off the bet and it becomes a three-team parlay.
The other case to be aware of comes from canceled or rescheduled games, more of a concern now than ever thanks to the pandemic. Again, most times, the bet simply comes off the parlay and it reverts to a smaller parlay.
Same deal for a rarely seen tie in a moneyline bet. Unless you’re betting a three-way market (often used in soccer), the tie comes off of the parlay.
Consult your sportsbook’s rules for full details on how they handle various situations pertaining to various bets.
Types of parlays
The most common types of parlays are Round Robin parlays and Teasers.
A Round Robin bet is placing multiple parlay wagers at once. It’s just that simple. Round Robin bets are just a way to simplify making multiple parlays. When a bettor “Round Robin’s” teams in sports betting it’s similar to a horse bettor “boxing” horses for an exacta or trifecta bet in a race.
The bettor will select anywhere from 3 to 8 teams or totals to be in the Round Robin. They will then choose how many teams or totals they’d like to tie together for the Round Robin. For example, a bettor may select eight teams and totals for a Round Robin and tie the parlays to as many three-team combinations as possible.
The combination of teams will dictate how many different parlays the bettor has. Continuing the example, if a bettor wants to Round Robin eight teams they will have 28 different parlays if they choose two teams. If the bettor chooses to make three-team parlays they will have 56 different parlay tickets.
The ticket will cost the amount chosen for each parlay. If the bettor only has $300 they might choose to Round Robin the teams by two, so they have 28 different parlays for $10 each. The payout for each winning parlay is the same as it would be if the parlay bets were each made individually.
A teaser is similar to a traditional parlay where the bettor can select multiple teams or totals. However, there are no moneylines allowed with a teaser. Unlike a parlay, the bettor may move each point spread or total plus or minus a certain number of points. The additional points on the spread or total make these bets easier to win and thus they pay less than a traditional parlay.
Teaser bets can change the point spreads or totals anywhere from six to 10 points. However, each leg of the teaser must use the same number of points. Those legs of the teaser may go in different directions.
- For example, the Kansas City Chiefs -7 can be teased down six points to -1. Meanwhile, the Houston Texans can be teased up six points from +4 to +10 points.
Much like a traditional parlay, the more teams involved with a teaser the better the payoff. Again, different sportsbooks have different odds and rules so they might have different payouts and teaser options available to bet.
The more popular way to bet parlays in casinos today seems to be with a Parlay Card. These are the long narrow cards where bettors fill in the numbered circle of the side or point spread they want to include in their bet. Once the teams and totals are chosen the bettor simply presents the filled in portion on the card to the ticket writer in the sportsbook along with how much they’d like to wager.
Parlay Cards are especially popular during football season. There are many different types of Parlay Cards including a variety of teasers, ties win and reverse teaser cards known as pleasers. These are more popular every year so the mobile sports wagering apps have started to add Parlay Cards for mobile bettors.