Parlay Betting

Off-the-Board Parlay Betting

You’re stuck in a line at the window that never seems to move. Bettors in front of you with number-filled sheets are rattling off endless combinations. The customer at the window is blankly staring at the board, searching for one additional game. The ticket writer waits patiently for him to find that last special team. These are parlay bettors.

Nothing can back up a window like a couple of parlay bettors with a full board to choose from. In general, they’re a royal pain to deal with, but the sports books just love ‘em. Parlay bettors buck a big house advantage, whether they bet off the board or on the pre-printed cards. House advantages can range from just a few percentage points to hefty double digits.

Much of what happens in a sports book appears to be done out of convenience. The pay charts for teasers and parlays use rounded numbers that seemingly make things easy to grasp and easy to work with. A novice looking at these charts might conclude that changing the number of teams in their parlay results in an adjusted payoff that’s fairly consistent with the others on the list. But that’s rarely the case, and in many instances, adding that one additional team jacks the house edge up many times over what the previous (or next) one on the list offers. If you’re a parlay bettor, it pays to know how to make your bets and how many teams to use to minimize the house edge against you.

The list below shows the standard pays for off-the-board parlays at many of the sports books in Las Vegas (“ML” stands for money line).

NumberOddsHouse EdgeML per leg
2 Teams13 to 510.0%-111
3 Teams6 to 112.5%-109
4 Teams10 to 131.3%-122
5 Teams20 to 134.4%-119
6 Teams40 to 136.0%-117
7 Teams75 to 136.7%-117
8 Teams150 to 141.0%-115

It’s logical to assume that, as the number of teams parlayed increases, the average lay price per leg (last column) will get worse. That’s not the case, though, as the more teams you add gives the house more legs on which the bookie’s edge is being applied. A 7-team parlay is the equivalent of taking seven games and laying -117 on the first one, and if it wins, rolling all the returned money into the next leg at that same rate. So seven bets of increasing size at the fixed rate of -117 gives the sports book plenty of profit. Looking at the chart’s third column, you can see that for every $100 you risk on a 7-teamer at 75-1 odds costs you $36.70 in expected loss. When you look at the payback on the 3-teamer, it shows that the same $100 bet earns the house only $12.50. You could bet three separate 3-team parlays for $100 each and the expected loss compared to making just one 7-team parlay is pretty much the same. What you get when you bet a 3-teamer off the board is basically a standard price using -110 as the benchmark for each game.

You also get a standard price on 2-team parlays at -111 or so per leg. The big jump in vig occurs when you move to the 4-teamer. At an eye-popping -122 per leg, the 4-teamer is the worst bet on the list on a price-per-leg basis. It’s like paying to get an extra half-point on every one of the four teams in your parlay, but not getting it. The increased price tag of -122 per game is more than double the juice you should be paying, but you get nothing for that extra vig except a few drink tickets and a big smile from the sports book manager. He’s delighted to deal to another sucker who pays more than he has to, then shuffles off to enjoy his comped beer and his fresh parlay that holds more for the house than some keno tickets.

The discussion about buying a half-point for -120 has additional relevance here, as it’s possible to actually get that half-point and reduce the house edge on a parlay. Parlay payoffs off the board are determined by the fixed pay scale that’s posted. Use four teams that the board lists at -110 and you get the fixed +1000 (10-1) payoff. The problem with that system is that the computers can’t use the fixed pay scale if any of the bets you include in your parlay carry a money line other than -110.

For example, if you use a game that’s -115, as you often see when a game is sitting on a key number (3, 7, etc.), the computer does a direct calculation of the payoff based on three games at -110 and one at -115. Using that method, the excess fixed-rate-parlay vig is eliminated and the payout is $1,200 instead of $1,000 if you win your 4-teamer. That’s an increase of 20% that’s achieved simply by adding a more expensive game to the parlay. It’s definitely worth the effort.

The chart below shows the change in payout if you swap out one game priced at -110 for one priced at -115. Some increases get pretty steep as you move down the chart. Note that the examples assume you swap in the -115 key-number leans, even though the swap is more easily accomplished with the half-point buy just discussed. The returns will be slightly reduced with a -120 leg, but you have the half point to compensate for that.

NumberOddsPayoff per $100Payoff per $100 with -115 swap
2 Team13 to 5$260$253
3 Teams6 to 1$600$581
4 Teams10 to 1$1,000$1,200
5 Teams20 to 1 $2,000$2,383
6 Team40 to 1$4,000$4,641
7 Teams75 to 1$7,500$8,951
8 Teams150 to 1$15,000$17,179

The 3-teamer isn’t worth swapping. The 2-teamer theoretically could be, if you’re getting enough value to make up for the extra 5¢ on the -115 bet, but let’s just ignore that one, too. Once you get to the 4-teamer, the benefit of forcing a direct calculation on your parlay is obvious. On the 4-teamer, the fixed payout is so bad that if you change one of the -110 teams for a money line of -172, you’ll still get a higher payout than the $1,000 fixed-odds return. Parlays for other numbers of teams have similar swap-out value that you can confirm with the parlay calculator.

This direct calculation of parlays is a primary reason that sports books claim they struggle during baseball season. The fact is that all the parlay bettors during football season happily go along with those short odds on parlays. In baseball, however, they get the direct calculation due to the varying money-line prices of baseball games. It’s not by design that the parlay guys fare better at baseball—it’s the direct-calculation method used in pricing their bets.

In answer to the baseball-parlay dilemma the books faced, they made an intelligent move. They designed baseball parlay cards that offer some games at PK, some at -1 run, and some at -1.5. This is done to achieve a proposition on each game that’s as close to pick ’em as possible. Then they shorted the pay scales to match the football cards, and it was mission accomplished. Pre-printed parlay cards on baseball now provide the same hefty double-digit edges for the house as football cards. Stay away from them and stick to off-the-board baseball parlays.

When it comes to football and basketball, bet the 2  and 3-teamers lined at -110 off-the-board, or use the swap-out strategy to boost your payout. Buy a half-point on one game if necessary to change the price on one of the parlay legs. And don’t forget to ask for drink tickets.