Are Parlays Sucker Bets, Worthy Gambles, Or Both?

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The date was Sunday, November 11, 2007. Serious sports bettor Brad Feinberg had a good feeling about an assortment of NFL underdogs, so he parlayed seven of them together on the moneyline. If all seven underdogs won outright, he would turn $2,000 into … (dramatic pause) … $1.2 million.

As Feinberg detailed recently on the Gamble On podcast, six of his seven ’dogs barked loudly, including the 0-8 Rams, who beat the 4-4 Saints 37-29. Only one team let him down: the 0-8 Dolphins, who led the 4-4 Bills by a score of 10-2 in the fourth quarter, only to lose 13-10. When the score was tied 10-10, Dolphins rookie Ted Ginn Jr. returned a kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown, but the run was called back on a questionable holding penalty. It was a bad beat within a brutal beat for Feinberg.

But that’s part of the parlay game (and part of why Feinberg doesn’t make that sort of bet often). Multi-game parlays are a high-upside, high-variance way to approach sports betting.

To some, they’re a chance worth taking. To others, they’re sucker bets, plain and simple.

Where does the truth lie?

Living the longshot life

The two above statements are not mutually exclusive. Parlays can be both a sucker bet (especially when you go above three teams, as we’ll explain) and a fun gamble.

Essentially, parlays are to sports betting as guaranteed prize pool tournaments are to daily fantasy sports. If you’re above average at DFS lineup building and want to grind out a steady profit, you play head-to-heads and double-ups. But if you want to have a shot at turning $20 into a million bucks, while probably racking up losses most weeks in hopes of hitting it big one time, you play GPPs.

Remember Mike Francesa’s hilariously uninformed take on sports betting in June in which he thought he was sharing an original idea but was actually just explaining DFS? Lost in the hubbub over him branding himself a genius for inventing something that had existed for years was the radio host being dead wrong when he said, “[The bookmakers] don’t like coupled bets, they don’t like the chance of you winning a lot with a little. They frown on that. They don’t want that.”

Bookmakers absolutely do want you making parlay bets. That’s why they offer them — at odds that favor the house.

But what Francesa got right is that people love the allure of being able to turn a little into a lot. That’s what parlays offer.

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If you go on FanDuel Sportsbook right now and pick the five biggest underdogs of NFL Week 4 on a moneyline parlay (Bills +350, 49ers +330, Jets +280, Dolphins +240, and Vikings +215), you have a chance to turn $100 into $78,750.

That’s fun. The sportsbooks are still going to come out ahead of the bettors in the long run. But the bettors get to dream a little. Barring erroneous odds and charitable payouts, you just don’t see your money multiply like that very often.

“A parlay, in theory, is not good value,” Feinberg told NJ Online Gambling this week. “Just like they don’t build casinos for people to win, these parlay odds are never giving you fair odds, so you have to realize that you’re never getting the better of it. The more teams you put in your parlays, the more they’re tilting the odds against you. If I really like a particular moneyline parlay, I might try it, but in general it’s not the way to go.”

Spread it out

Let’s ignore the moneyline parlays from this point in the article forward. The more common types of parlays, and the ones that are simplest to break down mathematically, are a collection of bets against the spread.

If you bet on two teams to cover the point spread, your chances are 1-in-4 of getting them both right, so the true odds are 3/1. The standard sportsbook payout on a two-teamer is 2.6/1. Not great, but not a terrible amount of tax.

A three-teamer, with true odds of 7/1, pays 6/1. Again, not bad.

After that, it gets uglier for the bettor. Here’s a look at the standard casino payouts for parlays from two teams up to eight teams, where each individual team is listed at -110 against the spread: 

Number of teams parlayedTrue oddsPayout
23/12.6/1
37/16/1
415/110/1
531/120/1
663/140/1
7127/180/1
8255/1150/1

With the four-teamers and up, the house edge is prohibitive — at least using the traditional live-sportsbook calculations.

We ran some numbers on FanDuel and Play Sugarhouse’s mobile books and saw that the parlay was much more bettor-friendly on both sites. Picking five favorites, each listed at -110, to cover the spread, you can turn $100 into $2,535 on FanDuel and $2,542 on Play Sugarhouse. That’s significantly better than the 20/1 payout traditionally offered at casinos.

And a simple series of calculations shows that the FanDuel number was arrived at in the most pure way possible. If you bet $100 on one of those -110 favorites, won that bet, rolled that over and put all the money (now $190.91) on the second game, and kept repeating until you’d bet on all five games individually, you’d end up with a payout of … $2,535. (We’re not quite sure how the total came out seven dollars higher from Play Sugarhouse, though it’s a small enough difference that it might just be a matter of rounding a penny up or down somewhere along the line.)

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The bottom line is that you’re not paying any extra vig to parlay your bets. The only vig you’re paying is that 10 cents of juice on your dollar for the right to choose the side you like.

A few weeks ago, SBTech, which handles sportsbook technology for Resorts and Golden Nugget in Atlantic City as well as several Mississippi casinos, issued a release touting “innovative features such as true-odds parlays with a bonus boost.” It looks like those “true-odds parlays” are the industry standard for mobile betting — and when a “bonus boost” is offered, the bettor can come even closer to having an actual advantage.

When to parlay, when not to parlay

At land-based casinos, when the standard 20/1 payout on a five-team teaser is applied, Feinberg says there’s really only one situation where the bettor might have an edge.

Some sportsbooks use “parlay cards,” where you can pick a group of games using lines printed on a card at the beginning of the week. Say a starting quarterback is deemed inactive due to injury in the middle of the week, and the line moves three points as a result. On the parlay cards, you can still get the original line later in the week, which Feinberg says opens up a possibility of an advantage play.

“If you can get multiple lines like that, then the parlay card in that situation can be to the player’s advantage,” Feinberg explains. “If each individual bet has an edge to it, then a parlay can have an edge.”

For the most part, though, anything above a three-team parlay just isn’t a wise investment. And there’s one common mistake Feinberg sees made all too often.

“People will try, for example, a four-team parlay,” Feinberg says, “and if the fourth game is a night game and the first three are day games, they’ll go, ‘Oh, if I go 3-0, I can hedge on the last game.’ Well, you’re much better off just doing a three-team parlay and getting your 6/1 payout than hedging. If you’re only making 10/1 and you hedge, you’re going to make about 20 percent less than if you just did the three-team parlay. With the hedge, you’re costing yourself significantly. Don’t do that. You’re better off parlaying one fewer game.”

In the end, though, people are going to bet parlays because of the thrill, because of the opportunity to risk a little to win a lot. Parlays are the opposite of what’s commonly called a “bridge jumper” bet, one in which you risk a lot of money on a heavy favorite just to win a small amount. We hear about those when they go wrong, but most of the time, as long as the odds are fair, they’re rational investments made by bettors with the bankroll to take the risk.

Parlays are irrational investments. They’re lottery tickets. They’re GPP entries.

And they’re fun as hell, as long as you have realistic expectations and don’t mind playing the role of a sucker taking a swing.

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Eric Raskin

Eric is a veteran writer, editor, and podcaster in the sports and gaming industries. He was the editor-in-chief of the poker magazine All In for nearly a decade, is the author of the book The Moneymaker Effect, and has contributed to such outlets as ESPN.com, Grantland.com, and Playboy.

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