One of the most painful days of the NFL season is the day you are eliminated from your survivor pool. You pick a 7 point favorite at home and they get upset out of nowhere. Of course, you will track the next few weeks to see how you would have done and inevitably you would have kept on winning. So frustrating.
If you are unfamiliar with survivor pools or knockout pools the rules are pretty easy. You select 1 (sometimes multiple) teams each week without a point spread. That team must win (in some cases tie) and you advance to the next week. If your team loses you are out of the pool. You may only pick a team once and then never use them again.
It goes without saying that the fewer entries you are competing with the greater the chance you have of winning. Entering a pool of 20 entrants gives you a 5% chance as opposed to one with 100 entries which give you a 1% chance. How we look at percentages and human psychology has always fascinated me. If you entered that 20 person pool you would feel good about your chances yet if I gave you a bag of 1 white marble and 19 black ones and told you to pick the white marble out you wouldn't feel as confident. The moral of the story is to temper your expectations. Winning these pools is difficult regardless of the number of entrants we are competing with.
Your goal should be to increase the probability of winning as much as possible. We don't ever want to have as much a chance as the next guy. That would be like playing in a box pool. There is no skill so we always have a 1 in 100 chance of winning regardless of how smart we are. But in a survivor pool of 100 people we can increase our chances of winning and as such increase our expected value over time. If you have not taken my free beginners course on sports betting you should sign up and check out the section on expected value.
Let's look at some numbers to understand how difficult it is to advance in a survivor pool. Assume you can find a new 7 pt favorite every week. 7 point favorites win about 75% of the time in the NFL. To advance 2 weeks of picking 7 point favorites you have a 56% chance. To win 10 straight weeks with a 7 point favorite you have a 5.6% chance. The odds are you will not be picking 7 point favorites every week so you can see just how hard it is to go deep in these pools.
1. Enter enough entries in your pool so that you have at least 2% of the entries. Ideally, you can get up to 5%. This will obviously depend on the cost of each entry and what you can afford. In a large pool of hundreds or thousands of people, it will be next to impossible to ever win without having 2-5% of the entries. It does not matter how much you know about football.
2. You will play differently depending on the number of entrants you are playing against. If you are 1 entry of 20 then you will play things very straight forward. Pick the highest favorite you can each week. When close you will take the one that you do not expect to be a high favorite again. This means looking ahead a bit. If you can only afford 1 entry in a pool of 100 or more then you have a much smaller chance of winning and the likelihood of someone winning by playing it very chalky is unlikely. These pools are win or nothing so getting knocked out early is just as bad as getting knocked out with 10 left. You need to be willing to take more risk.
3. All favorites of a certain spread are equal, sort of. Go to Pinnacle and check the lines each week before making your selections. You should be making your picks as late as possible as per your pool's rules. Make a list of the teams in order of biggest favorite to smallest. Look at the "juice" on each spread as well. A -7 -125 favorite is more likely to win than a -7 -110 favorite. Again if you want to learn about juice check the free beginner's course. This is why I said sort of. There are many resources online to help you track who people are likely to take in your pool. Survivor Grid is a great free one. Here is a screenshot of week 1 in the 2019 season from Survivor Grid
You can check out their site for more in depth explanations of what each column is. The columns to focus on are W% which is the probability that the team wins this week and P% which is how often that team is being picked in pools overall. If you had 1 entry in a large pool which team would you pick here? If we assume our 100 person pool goes exactly like the market. That means we can expect 27 Seattle, 20 Philadelphia, 12 LA Chargers, 11 Baltimore, 6 Cleveland, 5 Dallas, and 4 New Orleans. Dallas and New Orleans are about 73-74% to win their games while Seattle and Philadelphia are around 78%. With 1 entry in a large pool, you need to be avoiding the mob and going with Dallas or New Orleans. What is the advantage of doing this? If the popular pick wins and you are in on them you are not much closer to winning the pool. You are starting on a path that everyone else is on. Meaning you are becoming more likely to have to pick the same teams as the pool goes on. Secondly if one of the popular picks loses and you survive you have successfully knocked out a large portion of the pool with minimal risk in your pick. If we took this to an extreme and everyone was forced to take the biggest favorite on the board but you were allowed to take any team you wanted wouldn't you want to take the next biggest favorite? You could easily win it right there. Why join the mob?
If you have many entries in a large pool the strategy changes slightly. You will want to cover a few teams with your picks. You will also want to decide which teams you will be "over" or "under" the market. So in this instance, if we have 20 entries in a 1,000 entry pool we are going to take some shares of all the big favorites. But how much? The logic is going to remain the same in that you want to have more shares of the highly likely team to win that is not getting a lot of love from the market. But we want to put a few entries with the market. If we were in line with the market on 20 entries we would have something like this
You have 4 more picks you can either spread out among smaller favorites or add on to some of these larger ones. From here you may want to adjust and remove 1 from Sea and Phi each and add it to Dallas and New Orleans. Perhaps giving 1 more each of your 4 remaining entries for a total of 3 each. Maybe go up to 4 each. How you configure this is going to be up to you and there is no right way to do it. What I want you to understand is you are trying to be over the market on a situation that is nearly as likely to happen as the biggest favorites winning but the market, on the whole, is not on them. Of course, the downside is when Dallas or New Orleans loses you are now a bigger dog to win the pool than you were when you started but the risk is well worth the reward.
Follow this method weekly and you can increase your chances of winning your pool by a few percentage points and become a +EV player in survivor pools.