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Never Tell Me The Odds: In Defense Of The Single-Game Parlay

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“No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” – H.L. Mencken, 1926.

Here’s a fun didja know: State-sponsored lottery scratch-off games offer truly terrible odds.

Now, if you’re reading this, I assume you already know that. I mean, of course scratch-off tickets — or “scratchers,” as your cigarette-smoking, faux-jewel encrusted, loves-to-kiss-your-cheek aunt calls them — are a terrible gambling investment. But do you actually know how terrible? I’ll give you a minute to wipe Aunt Lulu’s lipstick off your face while you contemplate.

Have an answer?

You’re wrong. It’s worse.

In New Jersey, my home state, the $1 scratch-off tickets pay 60 cents on the dollar, and one out of every five tickets is a winner. So if you buy five tickets for $5, you can expect to “win” $3.

It gets better with the higher-value scratchers — if by “better” you mean “still really terrible,” with the $30(!) tickets paying 70% on the dollar.

I bring all this up to demonstrate … how awesome single-game parlays are. And by “awesome,” I mean “just about as terrible, if not worse, as state-run scratch-off games, but at least you get a few hours of sweat out of it instead of three seconds and you don’t have to rummage through the center console of your car in an effort to find a weirdly sticky penny to use as a tool.”

Losers unite!

Make no mistake: The sportsbooks are crushing single-game parlay (and all parlay) players.

The famous UNLV Center for Gaming Research study showed the hold percentage for parlays runs about 30%, compared to between 5% and 6% for most all other single-game bets. And while single-game parlay data is scant bordering on unavailable, the rush for operators to hype their own same-game products in the wake of FanDuel popularizing the bet stateside has the look of a gold rush.

Clearly, single-game parlays are a large and growing source of revenue for sportsbooks. And plenty of industry-watchers are none too pleased with the development.

 

There is good rationale behind being against “sucker” bets. After all, the odds of winning single-game parlays are obviously not great, and encouraging people to bet them is not exactly what one might call responsible advertising.

Making it even worse is that there’s really no way to figure out what the “true” odds should be for any single game parlay. This can be demonstrated at times by simply putzing around building single-game parlays. In the following examples, the single-game parlay odds are worse than a straight bet. That’s not a good look for the operators.

To be abundantly clear: Single-game parlay bets are not good bets, period. And if you’re a professional gambler, grinding the edges, letting math guide you, you’ll know — deep in the marrow of your bones — that single game parlays are the gambling equivalent of starting a land war in Asia. You ain’t gonna win.

 

Fun counts

But you know what? They’re bleeping fun, and the risk of betting a little and winning a lot is what makes gambling fun for the great unwashed masses, of which I am proudly a member.

Taking a few bucks, making a few bets, watching a game with the chance to win a massive amount of money? That’s objectively fun. And while the sportsbooks (obviously) let you know the odds of winning, what the true odds are are anyone’s guess. I know that, you know that, they know that, and even still — I don’t care. I’m not even sure I want to know what the true odds are.

(Can you imagine what the single-game parlay odds were for both navigating the asteroid field and destroying the Death Star? Sheesh.)

Yes, the sportsbooks are pushing these things on sports bettors, many of whom are unsuspecting of how terrible the bets are. But even the most dull-witted sports bettor knows these aren’t “good” bets, much in the same way our lipsticked aunt knows her scratchers are terrible bets. (Right? Right?? Please be right.)

Sure, I suppose the sportsbooks — and the states, for that matter — can do a better job of explaining to people how much of a sucker they are being by putting their cash on the line with these wagers, but at least the sportsbooks give you actual odds every time you place a 12-leg single-game parlay. You won’t find any mathematical breakdown on Lucky 7 scratchers.

All things considered, the single-game parlay is the perfect bet for the average American sports bettor — low risk, big reward. And if the sportsbooks are padding their bottom lines with these bets, then they should continue to push them. Capitalism, baby. Or something like that.

And if you’re tsk-tsk’ing me, calling me a shill for the books, thinking it’s bad form to celebrate these single-game parlays, saying my time would be better spent explaining why these are bad bets using math and reasoning, well … I dunno. Seems like a steep hill to climb.



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