The 4 Biggest Strategy Mistakes in Football Pick’em Pools

Sep 09, 2020
The 4 Biggest Strategy Mistakes in Football Pick’em Pools

This article was written by TeamRankings.

At TeamRankings, we've spent years analyzing what it takes to win football pick'em contests and confidence pools:

  • We’ve built technology to automate all the data gathering and number crunching required to optimize picks for pick'em pools.
  • We provided pick advice to subscribers playing in nearly 7,000 different football pick’em pools last year alone
  • Since 2017, our subscribers have reported winning pick'em pools 3.6 times more frequently than one would expect, given the size of their pools

Many pool players don’t play optimally, so you can give yourself a big edge in pick'em pools by simply avoiding the biggest mistakes that pool players make.


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#1. Not Paying Attention to the Objective Win Odds

There’s a reason that Las Vegas has a lot of expensive casinos. It’s hard to be better at predicting games than gambling market win odds, and the professional bettors that move those lines. What definitely will not work in pick’em pools, over any substantial number of games, is simply going with your gut and ignoring the market. You might be able to have some success in the short term, but you will have difficulty winning in pools if you disregard objective measures of the differences between teams.

Does that mean you should never go with a betting underdog? Of course not. The answer to when you should pick underdogs depends on a lot of factors, including the type of contests, the length of pool, the size of the pool, and more. But you should do so strategically, not because you have a feeling.

We use our own models that project games. Sometimes, we do have a different team favored than the bookmakers. But those models are built based on objective evidence. They are not based on hunches.

Some of paying attention to win odds, by the way, also means paying attention to news. A lot of pick’em players will enter their picks early in the week and forget them. That can often mean smarter players pick up value when things like quarterback injuries and other betting line movements shift the win odds.

#2. Failing to Adjust Your Strategy to Your Specific Pool

Different pools have different strategies. If you just pick games how you want, without any consideration for how the pool contest rules impact strategy, you are making a big mistake.

For example, the strategy you would use in a season-long contest is different than the strategy you would use in a single-week contest. Strategy in pools that pick against the spread, and where you have the option to pick a smaller number of games each week, is different than a pool where you pick the winner of every game each week.

Let’s take weekly contests, for example. In contests where you start with a clean slate each week, it doesn’t matter if you finish 10th or 100th the previous week. Your score resets. That means that a strategy that focuses on distinguishing your entry from others is important. If you make unpopular picks and they all hit, you stand a great chance of winning the weekly prize. If they all lose, you may finish near the bottom of the standings, but that's not important. If you pick like everyone else, your chances of a terrible week are reduced, but so are your chances of a dominant one. So a strategy that picks some key unpopular upsets can be a good one.

But the same isn’t true for a small pool that lasts all season. A really bad week, where you took a chance on some longshot upsets that no one else was picking, will really hurt you. Everyone else will get those points, and you will be down in the standings and need to make up ground.

#3. Picking Upsets Just Because You Want to Throw Some In

Speaking of upsets, some of the biggest mistakes that pool players make is to pick a few upsets each week “just because.” This is a different mistake than simply picking games without paying attention to the win odds. Some pool users know who is favored, but they force a strategy where they pick mostly favorites, but then pick 3-5 of their favorite upsets each week, so their entry "looks good."

If you employ this strategy, you may be taking unnecessary risks. Further, there’s a decent chance that the upsets that you settle on are the same ones that are most popular among fellow pool players. If you end up picking really popular upsets, the joke is on you. That’s because the pool players just going with the favorites in those games are getting both the most likely winner, and getting a big chunk of the pool to take a team with lower odds.

#4. Disregarding How Your Opponents Might Pick

If you want to be the best pool player possible, you need to think beyond your own picks. Most pool players make the mistake of disregarding how others are likely to pick games, and think only about their own entry.

If you are in a small local pool, you should absolutely think about what biases your group of opponents has. If you have a history of knowing their picks, and you are aware that they always over-pick the local team, use that to your advantage. If you are in a larger pool, with opponents spread out more geographically, public pick popularity data is a valuable tool. Many sites that host pools, such as Yahoo or ESPN, have information on how many people are picking each team.

Why does this matter? Think back to the previous discussion about picking upsets. In a particular weekly contest, picking some key upsets may make sense. But if you are simply following the crowd while picking upsets, it doesn’t actually help. Knowing which upsets are unpopular, and which are being too heavily picked, can provide a high leverage value opportunity to the smart pool player.

Consider a two-game hypothetical where the Jets and Giants, in separate games, both have 40% win odds. But the public is only picking the Jets to beat the Patriots 10% of the time, while they are very optimistic that the Eagles are ripe for an upset, and are picking the Giants 60% of the time. (And yes, sometimes, extremes like this do happen in real life).

We can find no evidence that upsets (once you know the objective win odds) occur at a higher rate just because the public thinks it is more likely. So you can exploit those biases to grab some edge in a pool.

Picking a Jets-Eagles combo gives you the same chance of getting two wins as picking the Giants-Patriots combo. But only 4% of the pool would be expected to pick both the Eagles and Jets. Meanwhile, over half the pool would pick the Patriots-Giants. Since both are equally likely, one would give you a far better advantage in actually winning the week. It’s the one where you only have to be better than a handful of entries on all the other games that week, and not the one where you follow the crowd.

How To Avoid These Strategy Mistakes — Automatically

Our solution to winning more football pick'em pools was to design our Football Pick'em Picks product, which ensures that our subscribers never fall for the strategy traps outlined above.

Among other things, Football Pick'em Picks provides:

  • Betting market odds and objective game predictions.
  • National pick popularity data and opponent pick projections.
  • Weekly recommended picks based on factors like your scoring system, prize structure, and position in the standings.
  • Support for game winner or point spread based pools.
  • Support for flat scoring, confidence pools, and “Pick Six” style pools.
  • Pick optimization for end-of-season prizes or weekly prizes

If you would like to check it out in 2020, we're offering a free trial through NFL Week 1, no credit card required.


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