Daily Fantasy Football: Stacking Up Against the Competition

Jul 23, 2013
Daily Fantasy Football: Stacking Up Against the Competition

“Never think that lack of volatility is stability. Don’t confuse lack of volatility with stability, ever." - Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This is my second article in less than a week that starts with a Nassim Nicholas Taleb quote. I don’t even really like the guy, to be honest, but his views on low-frequency events and volatility have somewhat altered my decision-making. And they have a lot of relevance to the world of daily fantasy sports—a form of a stock market—so we can use them to potentially exploit inefficiencies.

There’s a general perception that volatility is a bad thing. We seek stability to the point that we’d rather hold onto something that’s familiar, even if it doesn’t make us happy or is detrimental in some other way, over changing. But volatility itself isn’t inherently disadvantageous; actually, because so many people fear it, we can often use it to our advantage.

Stacking Lineups

The easiest way to create volatility in daily fantasy lineups is through stacking—choosing players who play on the same team in an effort to increase your upside. When you pair a quarterback with his receiver (or two of them), that’s stacking. And it can be a really, really powerful tool in your arsenal, assuming you properly utilize the volatility it creates.

I wrote about stacking in my daily fantasy football book Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Cash in on the Future of the Game:

Using Variance to Your Advantage

Volatility can be a positive. In tournaments, for example, you want to choose a high-variance lineup because you need all of the upside you can get. If you’re in a 2,500-man league that pays out the top 250 owners, there’s no difference between 251st-place and dead last. You don’t want “solid” in a tournament. You want outstanding. By pairing a quarterback with his receivers, you can greatly enhance the ceiling of your team by relying on dependent events; if your quarterback throws for 400 yards and four touchdowns, you can bet his receivers will have monster games as well.

Volatility isn’t always welcomed, though, as we’ve seen in head-to-head leagues. When you’re playing against just one other owner, you don’t want to seek upside at all costs. In many cases, you just want to maximize the “floor” of your lineup, i.e. create a safe group of players. That means it’s probably best to select players whose production isn’t dependent on anyone else in your lineup.

The power of stacking really changes how you approach lineup creation. Ultimately, it forces you to analyze players in terms of ceilings and floors. By forming lineups with players whose production is dependent on one another, you can increase both the ceiling and floor of your lineups. You’re basically widening the range of potential outcomes.

For the fellow degenerates out there, there’s a sports betting equivalent to stacking: using parlays (which I generally wouldn’t recommend but which sometimes offer value) on dependent events. Ever hear someone say something to the tune of “If Team X can keep the score low, they can win”? Well, that’s true—underdogs win more games when the score is low (thus increasing the value of variance within a game)—and you can capitalize on it by parlaying the underdog with the under or the favorite with the over. Stacking works through the same concept: If A happens, B is likely to occur as well.

Going In Reverse

While stacking typically refers to pairing players on the same team, there’s another form of stacking—what I call “reverse stacking”—that can also increase the ceiling projection for your lineup. Reverse stacking involves pairing players who are participating in the same game, but on different teams.

Imagine that the Giants are playing the Eagles. You see that the Giants are a seven-point favorite and make a pretty conservative prediction that they’ll be winning late in the contest. Thus, you jump on running back David Wilson. Good idea.

But what if you’re in a tournament and you’re seeking upside, yet you don’t particularly like any quarterback and wide receiver pairs? Another way to increase variance would be to use a wide receiver on the Eagles. Let’s say that you’ve already decided to use Wilson and you’re choosing between Jeremy Maclin, who you have projected at 10.0 points, and another receiver in a different game, who you have projected at 10.5 points. Despite the lower projection, Maclin would probably be the best choice in a tournament because his play is linked to that of Wilson; if the Giants are winning in the fourth quarter and Wilson is getting carries, the Eagles will be passing in order to catch up. Thus, you’ve just created a dependent relationship without stacking in the traditional sense.

Reverse stacking. Tell your friends.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from my book on my preferred daily fantasy tournament strategy:

Back to the Tournament

So as you’re creating the optimal lineup for tournaments or leagues with more than five owners where upside is crucial, you should really base your decisions around the ideal player pairs. At the very least, you should be pairing a quarterback and a receiver, but it’s not uncommon to pair a quarterback with both of his receivers or with one receiver and a tight end. As I showed you, you can also pair a quarterback-receiver combo with the opposition’s running back to create a truly dependent situation. Remember, the best lineup in tournaments is the one with the most upside. Thus, while your heads-up lineup strategy revolves solely around value and maximizing projected points for each individual player, your large-field strategy should be based upon finding the best player combinations.

If you want to stack up to the best players out there (in terms of both daily fantasy profit and horrible puns), you absolutely have to know when and how to employ stacking.

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