Angle Autopsies: Parlay Cards

Angle Autopsies: Parlay Cards

Jason Scavone
October 12, 2023

parlay cards


Parlay cards were printed. 

That seems obvious. “Card” is right there in the name. But when you’ve spent the last few years in the fast-twitch world of online sports betting, stop and think about what it means to have lines set in ink and paper. Might as well be chisel and stone.

Now think about what it means when those cards are printed by a state lottery playing dress-up as bookmaker. 


The Return of Parlay Cards

Captain Jack Andrews didn’t think he was going to find a soft spot when Delaware brought parlay cards back.

In 1976 the Delaware state lottery put out a forward-looking product: football parlays of three teams or more. It didn’t last long, though. More than a decade later, Congress passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, effectively banning sports betting nationwide. PASPA was the law of the land, but it did grandfather states that had offered sports betting prior to its passage. 

Delaware tried to use that exception to offer full betting in 2009, but the leagues sued, saying they shouldn’t be able to offer anything that wasn’t on the books in ‘76. So Delaware settled for re-introducing parlay cards at its race tracks and some other venues.

Andrews took a ride from his New Jersey home to Delaware Park in Wilmington just to see what it was all about. 

But bettors have the entire offseason to hammer Week 1 lines into shape. The numbers on the card were efficient. Nothing seemed like a spot until Week 2.

“I noticed these are all very stale numbers. What I had stumbled on is something that a lot of sharps in Vegas had been doing for a while. In Vegas, the sportsbooks were hip to it from the jump. You walk up with a stack of these parlay cards and maybe they’ll do two or three of them, but you’re not going to get big money down. But in Delaware, it was run by the state lottery and they had never experienced a losing day in their life. They were saying, ‘let the people come, let them bet as much as they want.’”

In fact, the lines weren’t just stale. They were positively dusty. 

In order to get their parlay cards out by Wednesdays, Delaware had to set lines on Sunday night of the week prior. The Monday night teams hadn’t even played yet. Even better, when the state lottery oddsmaker saw the action was largely on regional teams like the Giants, Jets, Eagles and Ravens, they’d shade the lines on those teams. 

If all that wasn’t enough, they’d only hang numbers with a hook. On an Eagles game where the consensus was -3, the card might shade them to -2.5. Consensus lines that landed on key numbers would move off the 7 to 6.5 or 7.5. And if you add it all together, you could get a Ravens game that opened -5.5, was shaded on the card to -6.5, but drifted midweek to -4.5 while the +6.5 was there for the taking.

On individual legs, Andrews was effectively getting around -130 when the Pinnacle price on the same plays was around -180.

There would be sharp players coming to Delaware from all corners. Cars in the parking lot sporting New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania plates all lined up to take their shot. One bettor connected to the Tim Donaghy NBA scandal was an early regular before operators wised up.

These aren’t revolutionary techniques by any means, but they’re effective and were available. But not for the whole season and not for everyone. Not unless they thought about the art of sports betting.


parlay card betting tickets

Providing a Service for the Book

The action on parlay cards tilted heavily toward the public sides of games. And that created an opportunity.

“The Delaware Lottery had never lost a day in their life,” Andrews said. “They were making money hand over fist. By the second year, they started to want to weed out the sharp bettors. Even though they were making tons of money, they didn’t want the sharp bettors in there. I realized when you have such a big edge on something, it’s not necessarily an us-versus-them. It’s a matter of ‘we need them.’”

When the public teams had a big week, the lottery would finally have the occasional losing day. Some risk managers appreciated having action on the other side of the public. And it paid smart bettors to be on good terms with the people on the other side of the counter.

“So I was super nice to everyone that worked there,” Andrews said. “I made it so that the people there like to see me. I would tip regularly and talk to people. Ask the managers how their week had been. And in return, they would ask me, like, Hey, what’s the sharp side of this game? So I began to notice that while all the other sharps were being run off, I was being allowed to continue to bet freely.”

He would bring a laptop equipped with a cellular modem (hello, 2009) so he could work on his cards in the parking lot. Eventually one of the managers offered to let Andrews come inside and use the Wi-Fi because he was doing so much to help balance the books.

Other bettors crashed the tellers on Saturday and Sunday at Delaware Park and Dover Downs. Or they went to gas stations and corner shops and other locations where the cards were sold. 

The lottery would use countermeasures like remotely shutting down kiosks to stop sharp groups from beating them up too badly. But Andrews had free reign. 

“These other sharp bettors actually started to notice after a while and I would get cornered in the parking lot and they’d accuse me of paying people off,” he said. “I’m not, I’m not paying anybody. I just tip the clerk after they just run my ticket through. I stay in their good graces.” 

The posted limits were $100 per card but some players could get more. (Operators allowed one player to put in a weekly $20,000 three-teamer.) And volume was always an issue trying to cover all the permutations. Public bettors lined up out the door trying to get down on their $10 Washington-New York-Philly-Dallas +900 four-teamers. “Volume” may have been a dirty word to them.

Good relationships paid off there, too. Even if the public didn’t always appreciate it.

“I would walk up to the window with a fat stack of cards. They would basically tell everyone behind me to switch over to another line. ‘Get out of the way. This guy’s going to be a while,’” he said. 

“Sometimes it would take a long while to get bets approved. This was mainly due to volume, but also my bets were big enough that they just didn’t run through the machine. Sometimes I was up at that window for 40 minutes and I would get harassed by everybody behind me. Some days the manager would come over and he would have my back and some days you had to duck your head and run out quickly.”


Moving on After Legalization

The angle didn’t really dry up as much as the landscape shifted.

The courts struck down PASPA in 2018. Suddenly there were more attractive bets to make than grinding parlay cards at the track. Nine years of scrambling on Sundays was enough.

”The manager at the location  in Delaware actually reached out to me and said we’d still love to have you bet here. Probably I left a little money on the table there, but they always thought I was making more money than I actually was. They would throw out these numbers like, ‘Oh, I know you made like $80,000 last week. It was a good week, but I didn’t make $80,000. They always kind of just assumed every winning bet was me.”

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