What is a Parlay Bet: Sportsbetting 101

Looking to understand how parlay bets work in sports betting? Here’s everything you need to know about parlay bets.
  • In sports betting, a “parlay” is a combination of multiple bets into a single wager that offers a greater payout… provided every bet wins.
  • A player selects a series of bets to create a parlay. When the first “leg” (hopefully) wins, the sportsbook credits the player as though the entire stake had been wagered, then automatically wagers that full amount on each remaining leg, until the player wins or one leg loses.
  • Parlays aren’t seen as offering great value but can be used by thorough and disciplined bettors to boost winnings. Read more to find out how.

It’s tough to size up a day’s betting options and not come away with at least a couple of bets that are begging to be made.

I usually make my play through straight bets. Sometimes, though, when I’m feeling really dialed in, sub-1-to-1 payouts leave me feeling a little… flat.

Let’s go back, for example, to NFL Championship Sunday. I was all in on:

  • Bengals/Chiefs UNDER 54.5 (-110); and
  • 49ers (+3.5; -110) vs. the Rams

I went the straight wager route, with an equal sum (say, $10) on each game, at (-110) odds. The final score of Bengals-Chiefs was 27-24, and the Niners lost to the Rams, but only by three points. I was a big winner! Both bets cashed, meaning:

  • Bengals-Chiefs UNDER 54.5 paid $19.09 (my $10 stake, plus winnings of $9.09); and
  • 49ers (+3.5) paid the same $19.09

At the end of the day, I had the pride of a perfect record, plus $38.18 (my original $20, plus $18.18 in winnings). Look, it beats losing, 100 times out of 100, but…

I felt I hadn’t been sufficiently rewarded.

If you can relate, you’re in the market for a parlay!

WHAT IS A PARLAY BET?

What is a parlay? Or, if you grew up outside the U.S., an ‘accumulator’?

Simply: a parlay combines multiple sides, total, or prop bets into a single wager, with a greater payout than the same bets as a series of individual wagers. The catch is that each bet (or “leg”) in a parlay bet must win (or push – more on this in a second) for the wager to pay out. A parlay is sports betting’s pass-fail exam. One wrong answer – regardless of how many others you’ve gotten right – equals defeat.

It’s a month later, and you find yourself in my position. You’re looking at NBA lines, with the same $20 budget. Two catch your eye. You can do what I did: put $10 on each and hope to win $18.18:

OR…

Package them into a parlay! Now, these plays are connected – and not just to your ego! In a two-team, $20 parlay (assuming -110 odds), if both legs win, you get your original $20, plus winnings of $52.89 – $72.89 in total!

HOW DO PARLAY PAYOUTS WORK?

Each bet is one leg of a larger wager. Whichever game ends first is the “first leg”. Lose that, and you lose your whole stake. If you win, it’s like you bet your entire $20 on that game. Like before, you’re paid out $38.18 (the $20, plus $18.18 in winnings). This time, though, you’re letting that money ride!

That $38.18 is automatically wagered on your next selection. If that wager wins, you get the $38.18, plus $34.71 in winnings:

As there are no more pending legs to this parlay, the bet’s settled, and the cash is all yours.

Let’s say that, instead of stopping at two, you’d included the third bet in your parlay:

Now you’re waiting on that third leg. If it loses, you lose your entire stake. However, a third win (again, assuming -110 odds) nets you seven times your money (original stake plus six-to-one). Bet two three-teamers and hit one, and you triple your original stake! And so it goes…

Winnings on a four-teamer? About twelve times. A five-teamer? OVER 24 TIMES! *

UPSIDES (AND DOWNSIDES) OF PARLAYS

A parlay is a player’s best chance – outside of a directional school upsetting Alabama – to win big with a small stake. If the simple straight wager is a hand of blackjack, this is a spin on a slot machine.

Given that, if you’re trying to make money betting sports, or like to bet big, watch your step. The problem here isn’t just financial. For many people, it’s also psychological. Like with spins on a slot machine, most parlays will lose. If a low win percentage is going to bruise your ego and drive you to wildly chase your losses, parlays might as well be hard drugs.

That being said, there are fun and responsible ways to use parlays. For some, this means stringing together favorites whose individual money line payouts are next to nothing…

But, together, amount to something.

Grouping these three into a parlay (let’s say for $10) works like this:

  • First leg: $10 on the Celtics beating the Hornets. If this happens. You win $3.13, bringing your total stake to $13.13.
  • Second leg: $13.13 on the Bulls taking care of the Pistons. Done deal? Another $5.51, bringing your stake to $18.84.
  • Finally, $18.84 goes on the Pelicans beating the Magic. They get the job done, you net another $4.49 and now have $23.33. You’ve turned a series of unsightly money lines into a +133 proposition!

I don’t know about you, but a shade over 1.3x on a three-teamer doesn’t get my juices flowing. It’s not enough upside to offset the potential anger of watching a massive underdog take my money.

For me, the best time to parlay is when I’ve made a bunch of straight bets. I’ll combine my favorites in a parlay, as an added kicker. If I’m dialed in, it juices up my returns. If not, my straight bets could still bail me out.

Where parlays get really interesting is when underdogs are baked in…

These aren’t even long shots!

WHAT HAPPENS IF A GAME IS CANCELED IN A PARLAY?

You don’t need me to tell you - AGAIN - the first rule of parlays: whether two, three, five or ten teams, a single loss sinks the entire wager. But what happens to a parlay if one leg (or more) doesn’t have a winner or a loser?

The most obvious example here is a push. Say in a three-teamer, you’ve got the Celtics, favored by seven, and they win by exactly seven points.

Simply and fairly: any leg of a parlay that pushes simply drops off, and the parlay becomes smaller. If one leg of a three-teamer pushes, it’s now a two-teamer.

Similarly, games that are postponed, canceled, rescheduled, or can’t be finished (due to bad weather, crowd trouble, a pandemic…) by and large (confirm this with your sportsbook) get the same treatment. Whichever bets are affected are removed, and the remaining games make up a smaller parlay.

While we’re here: if you’re betting a three-way line (most common in soccer) A TIE IS NOT A PUSH. Since the wager is effective “Team A vs Team B vs a tie”, the tie is its own “side”.

The Bottom Line

It's important to remember that sportsbooks don’t hand out massive payouts for fun. Since any defeat, however narrow, dooms the entire proposition, parlays carry more risk than straight wagers.

However, for bettors with limited budgets who are willing to put in the work - or bettors capable of consistently identifying their strongest plays - parlays can be a low-stakes way to boost returns.

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