Basic DFS Strategy: Guaranteed Prize Pools
One of the fun aspects of daily fantasy sports is all the different contests you can take part in. There are several types available, although they can broadly be divided into two main categories. The two categories we're talking about are cash games and tournaments.
A lot of the strategy required for these two types is quite different. On this page we offer some basic strategy advice for one of the most popular forms of tournament, GPPs (Guaranteed Prize Pools).
Some of the strategy advice we've provided also applies to cash games such as 50/50s and head-to-head contests, too—at least in a general way. We've taken the approach of providing the more general advice first. The further down this page you read, the more specific to guaranteed prize pool contests the advice becomes.
To be a complete daily fantasy sports player, you ideally want to be at least competent at cash games AND tournaments. We therefore recommend that you also read our article explaining basic strategies for playing DFS cash games.
Researching the Right Way
When you're doing research and trying to decide on a lineup, focus on data that matters. This means knowing the rules for each contest. It also means focusing on statistics that aren't trivial.
Players who win guaranteed prize pools focus on doing research via the Las Vegas sportsbooks and their betting lines. They also focus on stats that are likely predictors of points. No one in the world has access to more information—and more accurate information—about upcoming sports events than the handicappers working for the sportsbooks in Las Vegas.
One can also find information about other sports fans' opinions on message boards and other sites on the Internet. Following the right people on Twitter can help with research in tremendous ways.
Data isn't everything, though. Learn to trust your intuition, too. The human mind notices things unconsciously that result in leaps of intuition—don't ignore these subconscious hints.
Understanding Your Break-Even Point
This is briefly touched upon on other pages, but calculating the percentage of contests needed to win to break even is very important. It's also fairly easy. In 50/50s and head-to-heads, with a standard 10% commission, winning 55.56% breaks even. Winning a higher percentage of contests than that profits in the long run. Winning a lower percentage than that loses money in the long run.
But how does someone figure out the break-even percentage in a tournament situation? After all, the different places offer different payouts, and the percentage of people who get paid vary from contest to contest.
The first step in calculating this break-even percentage is to divide the entry fees by the total payout. Then multiply that by the percentage of people who get paid.
Here's an example.
- A tournament has 100 players and a $25 entry fee.
- The total entry fees equal $2,500 (100 x $25).
- After the site's commission, the prize pool is $2,250.
- The top 12% of players get paid.
- $2,500 divided by $2,250 is 1.11.
- 1.11 multiplied by 12% is 13.32%.
- The break-even percentage here is therefore $13.32.
Once you know the break-even percentages, start keeping records of how you do in the different types of contests you enter. Once you get a baseline for your winning percentage, work on improving it.
Finding Overlay Situations
The best and most exciting strategy for profiting from GPPs is finding overlay situations. These are tournaments where the total entry fees for a contest are less than the total payouts for the tournament. Most tournaments have a prize pool that consists of the entry fees minus a 10% commission.
For example, someone might play in a 100 person league with a $1 entry fee. The site puts $90 in the prize pool and keeps $10 for itself. They're basically risking $1 to win $0.90.
But some sites offer tournaments where the prize pool is guaranteed even if it doesn't fill. In that example league with the 100 players, if there were only 80 entrants, the site would lose a little money. They took in $80 in entry fees, but they're paying out $90 in prize money. That extra money is positive expected value. In this situation, they're risking the equivalent of 80 cents to win 90 cents.
Not all GPPs offer an overlay. In fact, at larger sites, they usually fill up with players. But at new sites, where they're hoping to build a customer-base, it might be easier to find an overlay. Any time someone can get into an overlay situation, they're stacking the odds in their favor just by participating.
In fact, one way to think about overlay situations is as a commission that the site is paying you to play, instead of vice versa.
Playing in Multi-Entry Tournaments
In some GPPs, players can enter a contest more than once. These are called multi-entry tournaments. The advantage to these situations is that they improve the chances of placing in the money. In other words, you can enter multiple lineups and reduce your risk of losing. If one lineup does really badly, one of the other lineups still has a chance of winning some money.
If you entered 10 different lineups in a GPP, especially one with an overlay, the odds of going broke drop dramatically.
Think about it this way. Someone could win all of the prizes in a tournament just by taking up all the entries. But that wouldn't be profitable, because they'd pay all the entry fees, including the commission. The goal isn't necessarily to maximize the chances of winning. The goal is to minimize the odds of going broke.
In fact, if someone is an above average player, there's no downside when entering a tournament multiple times. They might even cash in multiple places.
Choosing Your Tournaments Intelligently
Keep in mind all these things when choosing a tournament in which to play. Prioritize overlay situations, of course. Also choose tournaments where you can make multiple entries a priority. Depending on your stomach for risk, the break-even percentage might affect your choices, too.
But consider other factors as well. For one thing, a good rule of thumb is to realize that the bigger the tournament is, the better score you need to win. This seems like common sense, but a lot of people don't think about it. Larger tournaments have more money and more skilled players chasing after it. You need to be correspondingly more skilled if you want to have a chance at getting your hands on some of that prize money.
Individual goals should also determine your choice of tournaments. Want to see small returns consistently, day after day or week after week? Stick with lots of entries in tournaments with smaller entry fees. On the other hand, if you don't mind the risk of going broke, entering a contest where you have a small chance of winning a huge prize isn't a bad play. Basically, make sure to consider your tolerance for risk.
Making Projections & Using Multiple Lineups
Based on projections, only one lineup is going to be perfect. In other words, everyone decides on a single mathematically best group of players for a particular tournament. If you enter that lineup in multiple tournaments, though, you’re going to risk losing a lot of entry fees.
This is the mathematical concept of bad luck. Someone might be the best fantasy sports player in the world, but they're still never going to win every game. That's because sometimes someone else will get lucky. A player might get injured. Another player might underperform. Variance is what makes gambling exciting.
One way to hedge against this variance is to use multiple lineups. Secondary and tertiary lineups might not be as optimal as a main lineup, but they should still be positive expectation situations. By entering multiple tournaments with multiple lineups, you decrease the chances that bad luck will destroy your bankroll.
We cover this topic in more detail in our article on using multiple sites and multiple lineups. This also covers some of the advantages of signing up with more than one daily fantasy site.
In 50/50s and head-to-head tournaments, experts don't generally stack players—i.e. add players to a lineup from the same team. They want to reduce variance. Often players on the same team rely on each other to perform well.
The classic example is the quarterback/wide receiver stack in football. If you're in a team where you want to ensure a higher than average score with little risk, it makes sense to choose a quarterback from one team and a wide receiver from another. That way if the quarterback has a bad day, it doesn't affect the wide receiver.
But in a tournament situation, players need high ceilings. If a quarterback/wide receiver combo has the potential to put huge points on the board, go for it. Slightly above average isn't going to cut it in tournament play.
This is a great example of where using the lines from the Vegas sportsbooks works to your advantage. The over/under indicates how many points the handicappers think are going to be scored in a game. If one side is a big favorite over the other in that situation, expect them to have a big week. In that situation, lining up the projected high scoring team's quarterback and wide receiver is a great move.
Stacking works differently in fantasy baseball. There isn't the same kind of relationship between players on a baseball team as a quarterback/wide receiver combo. But smart players can still increase their upside by stacking up hitters from the same team. If the team doesn't do well, the lineup won't perform, either—but when the team does well, expect to see big numbers.
Diversification is a strategy used to hedge risk. That's why it's so important to 50/50 players and head-to-head players. They want to minimize risk.
But in tournaments, you can't afford to minimize risk. The same strategies that minimize risk limit your team to mediocre performance.
To borrow a phrase from the poker world—go big or go home.
Knowing the Important Positions
In all fantasy games, some positions are just worth far less than other positions. In football, that position is the kicker. No matter how great that kicker is, he's only going to be able to score a limited number of points—especially when compared to a wide receiver. In baseball, the catcher is the position that's worth less than all the others.
By all means, get the best value per dollar in those positions. Just don't overpay for them. Kickers and defenses are generally worth no more than 5% to 8% of your salary cap. On the other hand, you might want to spend 15% to 20% of your salary cap on your quarterback. Wide receivers and running backs might account for as much as 15% of your salary cap each, too.
Wide receivers are hugely important in tournaments, because they're the players with the biggest chance of putting a lot of points on the board. Pitchers are hugely important to a baseball team, too.
Going for Maximum Points
Players in 50/50 and head-to-head tournaments are more interested in each player's median scoring potential. That's because they want to maximize their chances of landing in the top 50%.
But the top 50% isn't good enough for GPPs. You need to land in the top 25% or top 15% to cash in these tournaments. In order to do that, pay less attention to a player's likely median score and focus on that player's potential maximum score.
Take football for example. Most running backs can be counted on to consistently score a median number of points. They're going to get carries, and they're going to get yards. But it's rare to see them outperform expectations by a tremendous amount.
Wide receivers, on the other hand, occasionally get into situations where they can get an enormous number of yards and points. But they also sometimes wind up in situations where they don't get to do much.
50/50 and head-to-head players would use this information to spend more of their salary cap on running backs. The GPP player uses this information to spend more of their salary cap on the wide receivers.
Is that still unclear?
Think about it this way. It might be possible to land in the top 50% with a score of 150 in a 50/50 league. But for purposes of landing in the top 20% of a tournament, 150 just isn't going to cut it. You're going to need multiple players having breakout weeks in order to win money.
The only way to get those multiple players with breakout weeks is to draft players who are capable of having that kind of week.
Those are the opposite of the kinds of players to use in a 50/50 or heads-up tournament.
Being a Contrarian
Something else to keep in mind when setting a lineup is that the most obvious plays might already be taken by a large number of your opponents. Have you found a really obvious quarterback/wide receiver stack? Finding a different stack might be a good idea. That's because if it's obvious, a lot of opponents will have made that move. Making the same move increases the likelihood of having similar performance.
Avoid that by choosing less obvious players and player combinations. That's the definition of being a contrarian. Make some moves that are contrary to the conventional wisdom. When conventional wisdom fails, contrarians profit.
Tournament strategy, especially in GPPs, is dramatically different from cash game strategy. When playing in a game where only the top 15% or top 25% get paid, being willing to accept risk is a necessity. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Strategy begins with the basics of fundamental research and understanding what it takes to be a winner in the tournament you're entering. Taking advantage of overlays increases expected value. Entering a tournament multiple times hedges risk, too.
Master those basics, then start focusing on players' potential scores instead of their median scores. Look for players who have a shot at a huge game—not players who are assured of a slightly above average performance. Then take further advantage of those players by stacking them appropriately.
Being a contrarian can also avoid a mediocre score. It increases the odds of having a player who makes a big difference.
Cash games are fun, but taking a shot at a huge prize pool is even more fun. Some people love grinding out a 2% ROI every week, but a lot of people prefer a shot at winning five figures or more once in a while.
Want a shot at that big win? All it takes is a little risk tolerance.
We'll say it again - go big or go home.
Author: Brad Johnson
Updated: October 2015
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