When Betting the Occasional Parlay Makes Sense

Man Wondering About Sports Betting
A running thread in my blog posts involves weighing the fun-quotient of any gambling system or style against its likelihood of scoring a profit.

I suppose the best angle of all would be if a person knew everything about sports and handicapping but cared not a whit for watching the games or following the news, except to receive a digital read-out of won and lost bets on the day. That would take all of the fun out of even belonging to a sports betting site, but the client would have zero prejudice against making the most boring bets imaginable.

Why parlay the NFC and AFC Championship Games when a spread of scientific wagers on 20 Italian soccer matches has a 1.91% better chance to pay off on the same weekend?

If sports weren’t fun to watch, we’d all pick the option that wins $ more often.

Not only are matches fun to watch, but anyone who hates watching is unlikely to become an expert. So for more than 99% of us it’s a moot point entirely.

We place wagers on athletes whom we’re interested to see perform and whom we’re ready to cheer for, and hope to keep our wits and beat a sportsbook at the same time. To take any other mindset would be to miss-out on the pleasure.

It’s easy to justify betting parlays with such moralizing.

If the sports gambler’s statistical disadvantage in taking parlays leads to more losses, that’s a reasonable trade-off for the occasional thrill of picking multiple outcomes in succession, watching them unfold throughout the day (or all at once), and cleaning-up with 5-to-1 or 10-to-1 payoff in the end.

But when we talk about “average ROI” and other betting-strategy statistics, we’re really only seeing what’s common – sure, bettors are losing lots of parlays every day, but not every parlay bettor has to be among the frustrated.

What if there’s a whole new way of thinking about parlays?

Parlay Betting: A Lesson From the Gridiron

It’s weird that sports gamblers don’t take more lessons from the actual games they’re speculating on.

Does nailing a 3-game parlay feel like a big win over a “busted” sportsbook? It should, since the casino’s entire premise of using “teasers” and other tactics to lure bettors into taking the parlay is based on the idea that the house will keep their money. When the gambler wins a parlay, the house must pay out a sizable amount on a wager purchased at a low rate.

Risk-reward is a principle that comes into play in sports just as often as it does in sports gambling, or in playing the stock market.

Consider the sportsbook as if it were an opponent on an American football gridiron. The “team” (call them the Las Vegas Bandits) is trying inch down the field – a 5-yard pop pass or a 10% house vig at a time – and doesn’t want your side to land any big blows. The Bandits are okay with throwing a few incompletions or having a few hand-offs go nowhere, so they’re not going all-out to avoid those things. But they really, really don’t want you to sack a parlay handle – er, sack the QB – and they’re definitely going all-out to prevent the big sack, with “maximum” blocking up-front and quick drop-steps.

But your defense doesn’t really have to risk all that much to rush the pocket, just like a parlay gambler isn’t risking a lot when putting $5 on the Bucks, Celtics and Warriors in a given evening. There might only be a few QB sacks in an entire game, and surely a lot of missed chances and close-calls. Yet those crushing sacks and swings of momentum can feel like they made the difference in the end.

Betting sites are typically well-protected against losing out on parlays. That doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to the rule. Sometimes, the door to a smart parlay is left open – and we’re all interested in “sacking” some of that Vegas fortune, no?

A Clever Parlay for the Frustrated Gambler

Sometimes when I’m putting a parlay bet together, it feels like a lovely jigsaw puzzle with just a single missing piece. Suppose the Boston Bruins are a (-150) shot to cover against a goaltender I know isn’t feeling 100%, and the Golden State Warriors are (-400) against an NBA patsy on the same night. I can parlay the NHL spread and the NBA moneyline, but my payout on a winner is still not substantially above “Even.” There’s no “jackpot” as I am simply hoping to hit 2 out of 2 outcomes to get an ordinary win.

A fun tactic in those circumstances is to look for another heavy favorite to comprise a 3-way parlay and “goose” the promised payoff well into the plus-range.

But not just any favorite.

Look for a favorite that you absolutely can’t stand, a team that never seems to lose. It might be Alabama in college football, Manchester City in soccer, or CSKA Moscow of the KHL. Doesn’t matter – so long as you’d happily sacrifice 10 or 20 dollars to see them – finally! – lose one.

No, I’m not saying I hate ‘Bama, Citizens or Mikhail Grigorenko. But when I can find a “hated” opponent playing a heavy underdog, I can always use that favorites’ moneyline to complete the parlay. That way if the bad guys lose, I still win – I just “paid” a few dollars to watch it happen. If I win as I expect them to – as everyone should always expect them to – my 3-way parlay chances are safe.

Here’s a few tips on finding those rare high-% parlays in 4 specific sports.

Professional Soccer

Like the NHL, the English Premier League is full of fast-paced and unpredictable battles. It’s really a bad idea to think you can parlay 2 and 3 English soccer moneylines together and pull off a winning bet slip with any kind of consistency, considering that the fixtures can change on a dime.

The answer is to look to the greater world of club football.

Manchester City and Liverpool rarely lose Premier League matches, but their domestic league records are pale compared to Paris Saint-Germain, which has won about 30 French league titles in a row.

When you find a sportsbook silly enough to offer a “sucker” moneyline on the underdog whenever PSG or Barcelona is taking on an also-ran from a league far less deep than the Premiership, consider including that match in your parlay (taking the Parisians or Barca to win of course) alongside any United Kingdom match that one feels adventurous and foolhardy enough to handicap.

College Football

Why do FBS betting sites bother putting moneylines on match-ups like Alabama vs Troy or UCF vs Idaho?

First and foremost notice that it’s not kosher for a bookmaker to offer a 1-sided moneyline, so when there’s a long-shot market on Troy or Idaho, there’s an “obligatory” price on the Crimson Tide or the Knights as well.

That price is often something like (-5000). It’s not much of a profit opportunity, even when combined into a parlay.

Yet on a less-exaggerated scale a bookie might offer an opening line of (+500) / (-650) on a match-up in which the underdog is getting some type of buzz in the media as a potential upset-winner. For instance, a ranked Ole Miss or Mississippi State squad headed into a meeting with a #1 or #2 Alabama.

We know that it’s very rare for ‘Bama to lose to those schools. Rarer, even, than any kind of reasonable moneyline could reflect. Even when the ‘dog wins a big battle, say for instance slowing Alabama’s offense down, Nick Saban’s team simply makes sure to dominate in other categories.

The odds managers aren’t stupid. They know that 1-to-6 still isn’t bound to draw a ton of betting action on the Tide due to the high risk involved. They also don’t want to be paying-out 10-fold if the underdog Rebels or Bulldogs happen to win.

1-to-6 isn’t all that great on a simple $50 bet. But it can come in handy for a parlay when you know only an historic upset can knock-out the line you’re looking at.

College Basketball

I’m fond of live-betting O/U totals in college hoops, and of course parlays and in-plays don’t mix.

But there’s evidence to suggest that Las Vegas handicappers (and especially the betting public) overrates every NCAA team’s potential to score points on average anyway.

It’s rare to see a scoring pace of more than 4 points-per-minute produced by 10 players combined in a March Madness or regular-season NCAA basketball contest. Shooting is not as accurate as that of the NBA, players don’t always specialize in sinking 9 out of every 10 free throws, and possessions are longer thanks to an extra :06 on the shot clock on every turn.

Often, you will see pregame college hoops O/U totals like (165 ½) at Las Vegas sportsbooks, even though that’s expecting an NBA scoring pace from college cagers playing under NCAA rules.

Since the Over is such a popular wager with the public, a well-timed under can be a “quiet” smart-shark wager that wins the outcome with cool efficiency.

But does it make sense to parlay them together? Not usually, but if your bookie allows you to mix-and-match markets with parlay bets, consider throwing a high-% “under” bet in with a 3 or 4-way parlay, with the rest of the picks landing with heavy favorites to-win outright on the ML.

Why? Because the O/U payoff line is likely to be somewhere around (-110). It’s striking how much a parlay “jackpot” is boosted when you throw just 1 close-to-even-odds wager in with the short markets.

Professional and Olympic Hockey

The NHL is usually not a grand choice for wagering parlays.

I do not agree with the modern superstition of ice hockey as “luck,” because the mathematicians saying that stuff are basing their models on other sports in which superstars are at the forefront of every important match.

Just because pond shinny is more of an all-22 team sport than it has ever been doesn’t mean the games are all coming down to luck.

But covering the spread in ice hockey often does come down to luck. Any time a league like the NHL schedules 82 games per team (100+ if you count exhibitions and playoff games) there will be a lot of random-looking and unexpected outcomes on a day-to-day basis, just like there are in the supposedly “less luck-oriented” vocation of Major League Baseball.

However, there are always better parlay-opportunities in international hockey. Look at “fading” underdogs like Norway and France at the Olympic Games and similar events, especially when NHLers are taking part for the best teams.

Again, Team Canada’s moneyline to beat the French or the Slovaks might not be all that tasty on its own. Stringing-together a few (-400) and (-600) lines adds up fast when the bookmaker expects you to lose due to the law of averages.

But there are no “averages” for the individual sports bettor – the “average” is for everybody while a smart parlay is all yours.

Wait for the right time to strike, and gamble on a low-risk and high-payoff “jackpot” with any of the tips listed above…or a few novel tactics of your own.

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