Gambling Wisdom: Parlays

Gambling (general), Strategy

March 10, 2008

In this series I discuss topics that are well known within the gambling community, but that may be new to players who come to the game of poker from a non-gambling background.

A parlay is a bet where multiple things have to go your way for you to win the bet. The terms is most frequently used in sports betting. In a standard sports parlay, you can combine multiple team or total bets where you would normally lay 11:10 into one bet. Since it’s more difficult to have all the components come in than it is to win a standard bet, the house offers more attractive odds – usually they pay 13:5 for a 2 team parlay and 6:1 for a three team parlay. Note of course that these odds still have a built-in house edge as with any sports betting – you would get paid 15:5 and 7:1 respectively on a gentleman’s wager.

Parlays occur in poker all the time, but they’re not always obvious. Consider the following fairly common situation in limit holdem:

You’re under the gun with AcKd and raise. You get 2 callers behind plus the big blind. The board comes KsTs9s.

Now at first blush, it appears you have a pretty decent hand – top pair, top kicker. But what has to happen for you to win the hand?

  1. There have to be no outstanding made hands better than yours – KK, TT, 88, KT, T8 (possibly K8), JQ two spades
  2. The next two cards have to be non-spades (or there have to be no other spades out) and probably non-connected
  3. You have to have no one catch a random 2 pair etc. on the cards to come
  4. You need to not get bluffed out of the pot

Now, any one of these potential ways the hand can go wrong isn’t all that likely by itself. If you just had to sweat, say, #2 you’d be good two thirds of the time. But when you put all four of them together, a normally profitable situation (namely making top pair, top kicker in a limit holdem game) becomes a losing proposition. It’s very easy, when calculating odds, to only look at one of the ways a hand can go bad and to ignore the others.

The interesting nay diabolical thing about poker parlays is that unlike the spotsbook, they don’t offer you any better odds than situations where you have to sweat less. That same preflop action in the example above could easily be followed by a board of K95 rainbow, and you’d get EXACTLY the same odds on your postflop bets (same pot size, same number of opponents etc.), but your chances of winning would be vastly improved since problem #2 above goes away entirely, and #1 and #4 are much less likely.

The moral of the story is that when you find yourself on the wrong side of a parlay in poker, it’s often wise to pass.

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