The parlay bet is the most alluring and exciting of all bets that can be made in the world of sports betting. Succeed in parlay betting and you could hit it big in no uncertain terms. That’s because a parlay bet has the potential to turn a modest bet into a return that is many times bigger. Perhaps hundreds or even thousands of times bigger, and you need never bet on an underdog at any point!
How is this possible, you might wonder? And how does parlay betting work to turn small stakes into big payouts?
This guide to parlay betting will answer both of those questions and many more. In fact, it will tell you all you need to know about parlay betting. You’ll learn what parlay betting is, how it works, the advantages and disadvantages of parlay betting, and the various ways in which you can use parlay bets. We'll then build on that solid foundation of knowledge by showing you how to place a parlay bet and how to calculate the odds of a parlay bet. As if all of that wasn’t enough, we will complete our guide by presenting a range of parlay betting tips and strategies for beginners and more advanced bettors.
What is a Parlay Bet?
The word parlay is most probably a variant of the French word paroli. The definition of that word means to make money from a winning bet and use it to make a subsequent bet. The word parlay can also mean ‘to exploit advantageously’. Both definitions are applicable here because a parlay bet is a cumulative one that seeks to turn a run of success to much greater advantage.
In the simplest of terms, a parlay bet is a single bet on three or more unrelated events. Each of those events is referred to as a ‘leg’ of the bet. The entire stake is applied to the first leg. If it wins, the total return from that first leg is used as the stake for the second leg. If the second leg wins, the total return is used as the stake for the third leg. And so on.
Because the entire stake is applied to each leg of a parlay bet in turn, any losing leg will automatically cause the whole parlay to lose. But if all legs of the parlay bet win, the whole parlay bet wins. This gives the bettor a far greater return than would have been possible on any individual leg for the same initial outlay.
How Does a Parlay Bet Work?
We have already explained how a parlay bet works in broad terms. But the concept can appear complicated at first glance, so let’s look at the mechanics in more detail. For this example, let’s imagine that a sportsbook manager will flip a coin three times. Let’s also assume that he’ll give us perfectly fair odds of +100 for each coin flip.
Now we could bet on any individual coin flip as a completely separate event. In that case, a $10 bet would give us a $10 profit if we were to predict Heads or Tails correctly. But instead, we decide to make a $5 parlay bet by predicting the outcome of all three legs in advance. Let’s predict that the first flip will be Heads, the second will be Tails, and the third will again show Heads.
The sportsbook manager takes our $5 and makes the first coin flip. It shows Heads, so our first leg wins. Our $5 stake is therefore now worth $10. That total amount is therefore assigned to the next leg of the bet. The second coin flip shows Tails, so we win again and the $10 grows to $20. All of that return goes on the third and final flip. The coin shows Heads, so we win for a third time, turning our $20 into $40.
When our parlay bet has been settled, we would receive a total return of $40 for a winning bet of $5. That’s because the odds of each leg of the bet were effectively multiplied together. So while a single coin flip gave us odds of +100, the odds for predicting all three coin flips correctly were +700. If we had bet on a fourth coin flip in the same parlay bet, the odds would have +1500, and so on. We will explain how to calculate the odds of a parlay bet a little later.
Of course, if any one of our coin-flip predictions had been incorrect, we would have received no return at all. In that case, we would have lost all of our $5 stake. It wouldn’t matter if we got the first two legs correct or not. Any losing leg in a parlay bet causes the whole parlay to lose.
The Advantages of Parlay Betting
As with any other type of bet, the parlay bet has both advantages and disadvantages. Our job here is to be direct and honest with you at all times, so we will look first at the advantages, and then we will take some time to highlight the disadvantages.
Advantage #1 - Bigger Profit Potential
The main advantage of parlay betting is that it gives the bettor the chance to win far more than would be possible by betting on individual events. Consider the coin-flip example previously discussed. You could have bet $10 on any one of the coin flips and doubled your money had the bet succeeded. But a successful parlay bet of half that size ($5) returned eight times as much thanks to the way odds are multiplied from leg to leg.
This multiplication factor makes it possible for bettors to achieve even life-changing wins with parlay bets. For example, a bettor in the UK recently placed a parlay bet of just £1 on the correct scores of seven different soccer matches. His predictions proved correct, and he won £374,000 as a result. This isn’t a common occurrence, of course, but it does illustrate just how big the profit potential of parlay bets can be.
Advantage #2 - Rising Excitement
Another advantage of parlay betting is that it provides the potential for rising excitement. Seeing the first leg of a parlay bet win is always satisfying, but the emotional involvement increases a notch with each subsequent winner. By the time the final leg of the bet comes around - and a winning parlay is just one event away - the level of excitement experienced can be almost palpable.
Given that sports betting is just as much about excitement and entertainment as potential profit, this is something that makes parlay betting extremely attractive.
Advantage #3 - Potential Long Term Interest
One of the great things about parlay bets is that they are supremely flexible. The events that you bet on in any given parlay don’t have to take place on the same day or even in the same week. You could make a parlay bet with legs that take place quite some time apart, and that can hold your interest for the long term.
For example, if you’re a golf betting fan you could start the year by placing a parlay bet on the four major golf championships. Your first leg would be the Masters Tournament in April. The PGA Championship in May and the US Open in June would be the second and third legs. The fourth would be The Open Championship in July. Your one parlay bet could therefore give you up to four months of interest. The more legs you win, the longer your interest will be sustained.
The Disadvantages of Parlay Betting
Having outlined the advantages of parlay betting, we can now turn our attention to the disadvantages. These won’t come as any surprise if you’ve followed all that we have said so far, but they are worth highlighting nevertheless.
Disadvantage #1 - Bigger Chance of Losing
The first and most obvious disadvantage of a parlay bet is that it has more chance of losing than a bet on an individual event. That’s because each leg of the bet must succeed for the parlay bet to win as a whole.
While you might have a 1 in 2 chance of correctly predicting the outcome of a single coin flip, you only have a 1 in 8 chance of correctly predicting the outcome of three in a row. That means you have a 7 in 8 chance of losing such a bet, which is 87.50%, compared with 50% for a single coin flip.
Of course, that is exactly why the potential return of a parlay bet is so much bigger than that of a single bet.
Disadvantage #2 - An Early Loser Spoils the Fun
We have said that a parlay bet gives you the potential for rising excitement and long-term interest. But the downside is that this potential is by no means guaranteed. If you have an early loss, the whole parlay is also lost and the fun stops right there and then.
Minimizing the Disadvantages
Most sports betting fans who understand the disadvantages just discussed do their best to minimize their impact. As far as the bigger chance of losing is concerned, they prepare for that by only betting on parlays with modest stakes. This leaves the bulk of their bankroll intact for their more serious betting activity on individual events.
As for early losers, most bettors shrug them off as something to be expected every now and then. Some will ‘get back on the horse’ quickly by making a new parlay bet for the remaining legs or completely different events. However, it is important to avoid doing this simply to ‘chase losses’. You should never try and bet your way back into a profit after a loss because you’re just as likely to suffer even more losses. Of course, if you have bet very modestly with the expectation that you might want to place another parlay in a worst-case scenario, there is nothing to prevent you doing so.
Parlay Betting in Sports
Sports bettors can use parlay bets on a variety of events. This makes parlay betting suitable for football bettors, basketball bettors, baseball bettors, and more. You can also bet parlays with a variety of different sports.
In all cases, a key rule of thumb to remember is that the more legs you have in a parlay, and the larger the odds of your selections, the bigger the payoff is if it wins. Of course, the bigger the potential payoff, the less chance there is of the parlay succeeding.
Your chance of landing a winning parlay (assuming that all outcomes are equally possible) is calculated by multiplying the number of possible outcomes in each leg together for as many legs as are in the parlay.
To illustrate this, let’s take a look at example parlay bets for tennis, soccer and horse racing.
Tennis Parlay Betting Example
The sport of tennis is a great one for beginning parlay betting fans to play with because it has just two possible outcomes - a win for one player or the other. With just two outcomes per leg, a parlay of four matches would give you a 1 in 16 chance of success, assuming that all players were evenly matched. Here is how the number of legs equates to your chances of winning.
|Number of Legs
|Chance of Winning
|1 in 8
|1 in 16
|1 in 32
|1 in 64
|1 in 128
|1 in 256
Soccer Parlay Betting Example
When you bet on events that have three possible outcomes, as is the case in a soccer match, the odds of landing a winning parlay are reduced further. Each leg in a parlay bet of different soccer matches can result in a home win, draw or away win. Assuming that each outcome is equally likely in each leg (for illustrative purposes only) this is how your chances would look:
|Number of Legs
|Chance of Winning
|1 in 27
|1 in 81
|1 in 243
|1 in 729
|1 in 2,187
|1 in 6,561
Horse Racing Parlay Betting Example
Having seen how adding just a single possible outcome to each leg can make a parlay much harder to land, you might appreciate why horse racing parlays are among the most difficult to win with. Each horse race has multiple runners, every one of which is a potential winner, and that can make landing a winning parlay extremely challenging. Here’s how horse racing parlays would shape up if every race you included had just 8 runners.
|Number of Legs
|Chance of Winning
|1 in 512
|1 in 4,096
|1 in 32,7678
|1 in 262,144
|1 in 2,097,152
|1 in 16,777,216
Leg Selection is Vital
As you can see from the parlay examples just provided, the number of possible outcomes in each leg of the bet has a massive impact on your chances of winning. You should therefore appreciate that leg selection is vital if you want to maximize your chances of winning. Our advice would be to focus on sporting events with just two or three potential outcomes, and view a horse racing parlay bet as the sports betting equivalent of a lottery ticket!
How to Place a Parlay Bet
At this point, you should have a good understanding of how parlay bets work and why they are so popular in the sports betting world. But how do you place a parlay bet? The answer is that it’s actually very easy to make a parlay bet, and if you know how to place a regular bet it should be a walk in the park. Simply follow this three-step process:
#1 - Make Your Selections
The first step is to make your selections, and this is the step that you will want to spend the most time on. As stated earlier, try to focus on events where there are as few potential outcomes as possible. Also, don’t be shy about focusing on shorter-priced favorites if you’re particularly good at winning with those. With parlay betting, you don’t need big prices to enjoy a decent payday - you just need all of your selections to win!
#2 - Complete Your Betting Slip
Whether you bet in person at a land-based sports betting kiosk or you bet at one of the many reputable online sportsbooks that are available, the next step is to complete a betting slip. If you bet online then it will obviously be a virtual betting slip, and you will need to enter your selections one by one. The betting slip may have a ‘place multiples’ option which allows multiple selections to be made, and in that case, you should of course use that option.
When completing your betting slip, try to enter your selections in the order in which they will take place. This will make it easy to see exactly how the bet is progressing at any given time. Those of you who place your bets online will find that the sportsbook automatically lists bets in time order in your account for reference purposes, which is handy.
#3 - Add Stake and Submit
The third step is to add the stake you want to bet and then press the submit button. You can of course bet whatever amount you want, but with parlay bets it is usually a good idea to calculate the return of the bet before deciding how much to stake. Remember that the bigger the potential return, the harder the bet will be to land, so you should stake accordingly. For example, you would probably want to stake far less on a parlay paying +100,000 than on a parlay paying +800.
Many sportsbooks will calculate the projected return automatically, in which case you can simply go ahead and stake accordingly. Otherwise, you will have to calculate the parlay odds for yourself, which is our next topic of discussion.
How to Calculate the Odds of a Parlay Bet
Calculating the odds of a parlay bet isn’t particularly complicated, but it is still something that you will want to do with a calculator at hand. In decades gone by, serious bettors always went about their business with an electronic calculator in their pocket. These days you can just as easily use the calculator on your mobile phone or desktop computer. Just don’t try to do the math in your head because mistakes are easy to make.
To calculate the return of a parlay bet, you need the odds for each leg of the bet in decimal format. If you only have American or fractional odds, use our Betting Odds Converter tool to convert them into decimal odds before proceeding.
When you have all of the odds in decimal format, all you have to do is multiply them together. This will give you the total return of the parlay, including 1 point for your stake. Deduct 1 and you are left with the odds themselves.
Parlay Betting Odds Calculation Example
To ensure your understanding of this process, let’s work through a quick example. We will assume that you will be betting a parlay of six legs, with odds as follows:
- 1st Leg = Odds of 2.00
- 2nd Leg = Odds of 5.00
- 3rd Leg = Odds of 4.50
- 4th Leg = Odds of 4.33
- 5th Leg = Odds of 1.80
- 6th Leg = Odds of 1.50
Your initial calculation would therefore be:
2 x 5 x 4.5 x 4.33 x 1.8 x 1.5 = 526.095
You would then deduct 1 for the stake and the odds would be 525/1. If you want those odds in American format, simply use our Betting Odds Converter again and you will see that they equate to +52,509.
The Parlay Betting Calculator
We have outlined how to calculate parlay betting odds so that you know how it is done. However, you don’t have to perform the calculation manually if you don’t want to. You can also use our free Parlay Betting Calculator to do all the hard work for you.
Getting Started in Parlay Betting
Parlay betting is best approached in a strategic way. For that reason, we will now present a selection of tips and strategies for both beginners and more experienced bettors. We’ll begin with four strategies for those who are just getting started.
#1 - Focus on Lower-Odds Outcomes
As you have seen already, you don’t need to bet on big-priced outsiders to have a chance of winning good money from a parlay bet. Beginners are therefore advised to focus on lower-odds outcomes wherever possible, as that will maximize your chances of success.
Consider a five-leg parlay with odds of -200 for each leg. That might not sound like it would pay much, but it would give you odds of +659, which is pretty good. A sixth leg at the same odds would take it to +1,036, and all of your selections would be highly fancied to win.
#2 - Start with Just a Few Legs
Our second tip for beginners is to start with parlays of just a few legs. Stick to parlays of just three to five legs to begin with, and don’t add more until you have started enjoying some success. The more legs you have in a parlay, the less chance you have of landing it, so don’t bite off more than you can chew.
#3 - Keep Stakes to a Minimum
Again, always remember that parlay bets are the most challenging to win with. This makes losing bets extremely common. That being the case, keep your parlay betting stakes to a minimum. Bet only a dollar or two on each parlay until you are confident that you know what you’re doing. Also, calculate the odds beforehand so that you can see what your chances of success are. If a winning parlay would give you odds of +50,000, don’t stake as if you’re betting on a +500 event.
#4 - Keep the Timeline Short
We have said that you can include legs that are weeks or even months apart in a parlay. However, when you are just getting started it is a good idea to keep the timeline of your parlay as short as possible. Ideally, all legs of your bet should take place on the same day or over the course of a single weekend. This is so that you can gain parlay betting experience quickly, and learn from your mistakes sooner rather than later. Of course, when you know what you are doing, more longer-term parlays can also be placed.
Advanced Parlay Betting Strategies
When you have some experience of using parlay bets in a straightforward way, you might want to think about employing more advanced strategies. We have five of them for you to consider, as follows:
#1 - Use Enhancer Parlays
This strategy is for those of you who are in the habit of placing several regular bets at once, perhaps on several different football or hockey games. The idea here is simply to enter the same selections into a parlay bet using your smallest stake. Then, if all of your regular bets succeed, the parlay will enhance your winnings with a welcome bonus payout.
#2 - Use Parlay Boosters
Most online sportsbooks offer a variety of bonuses and promotions, and one type of promotion that is particularly useful is the parlay booster. These promotions will give you a bigger return than would normally be the case when you land a winning parlay bet that meets certain criteria. For example, you might be required to place a parlay of five or more legs, and if the bet wins the sportsbook will boost the return by adding 10% to the payout.
We wouldn’t advise anyone to place a parlay bet solely to take advantage of a parlay booster. However, if you intend to place a parlay bet anyway, and it qualifies according to the terms of a parlay booster promotion, it makes sense to opt in to potentially benefit from the offer.
#3 - Expand with Legs and Timelines Before Odds
When you have more experience with small parlay bets, you might want to be a little more ambitious in the hope of landing a bigger payday. In that case, we would advise that you expand your bets by adding more legs and lengthening timelines, rather than including legs with bigger odds.
We say this because it’s often easier to land a parlay with more modestly priced legs than it is to land a bet with fewer legs at bigger odds. For example, it’s usually much easier to predict the outcome of seven tennis matches than pick the winner in three horse races.
#4 - Place Parallel Parlays
There are many times when just one leg of a parlay lets you down. If you want to place a parlay of seven tennis matches but you aren’t sure about one of them, you could try placing parallel parlays. Both parlay bets would cover the same seven matches, and the predicted outcome for six of those matches would be the same. However, the match that you’re cautious about would have one prediction in one parlay and the opposite prediction in the second parlay. Only one parlay can possibly win, of course, and it is still possible for both to lose, but it certainly wouldn’t be the questionable match that lets you down!
#5 - Place Manual Parlays
Although a parlay bet is one bet placed at a given moment in time about several different events, you can also achieve something similar by manually betting on each leg in turn. For example, instead of betting $10 on five events, you could bet the $10 on the first event, then bet the return on the second event, then the third, and so on.
The advantage of placing manual parlays is that it allows you to change your mind along the way. If you bet the first three events successfully, you might decide that you don’t actually want to place the whole return on the fourth event. In that case, you don’t have to. You can simply stop betting or reduce your stake on the fourth and subsequent events.