Two Elements to a Football Pool As in nearly every kind of gambling, there are two elements to a football pool, luck and skill. What’s most interesting to me about football pools is that those who know how to define “skill” in a pool are the ones most likely to succeed.
I won my office pool again this year, and I’ve decided to write up some pointers on how to do so. If you’re a pool sort of person, you might find this useful. I’m going to be talking about office pick ‘em pools, where you simply choose the winner of every game and there’s a payout at the end of the season and often also every week, but much of what I write will apply to other types of pools. Also, I keep track of lines and wins more than any sane person would, but it’s all done by hand so consider human error before you rush to ESPN.com with my homemade stats.
The Truth Football pools are not as much about picking the winning team as they are about using a sound strategy. The fact is that you’re not as smart as the professional linesmakers, or at the very least not as well informed. Recent estimates peg the yearly amount of sports betting as $300 billion . Every line is created and updated by companies with enormous databases, teams of employees scouring the country for the latest information, and millions of dollars on the line. If the line tells us that Team A is 60% to win on Sunday, it’s best to believe that Team A is 60% to win. The only skill involved in office pools is understanding the effects of picking underdogs on the likelihood of you winning, and adjusting your strategy accordingly.
The Importance of Linesmakers, Underdogs, and a Little Math Every week, do some research. At the very least find out which team is favored and by how much. Knowing that Team A is 60% to win is more useful than knowing that they’re favored by three points, but there’s a high correlation between the two so any information will do. Track your performance relative to the linesmakers as a mutual fund tracks its performance relative to a benchmark index. If during the first week of the season you choose three upsets and two of them are losers, you become -1 for the week. If three of your four week two upsets are winners, you are +2 on the week and move to +1 on the season.
The vast majority of pool players pick far too many underdogs. Imagine a weekend with only two games, each of which is 60%/40% according to the linesmakers: Odds of two favorites winning = 0.6 * 0.6 = 0.36 Odds of one favorite winning = 0.6 * 0.4 * 2 = 0.48 Odds of no favorites winning = 0.4 * 0.4 = 0.16 E(picking two favorites) = 0.16 * 0 + 0.48 * 1 + 0.36 * 2 = 1.2 E(picking two dogs) = 0.16 * 2 + 0.48 * 1 + 0.36 * 0 = 0.8
Now imagine three games: Odds of three favorites winning = 0.6 * 0.6 * 0.6 = 0.216 Odds of two favorites winning = 0.6 * 0.6 * 0.4 * 3 = 0.432 Odds of one favorite winning = 0.6 * 0.4 * 0.4 * 3 = 0.288 Odds of no favorites winning = 0.4 * 0.4 * 0.4 = 0.064 E(picking three favorites) = 0.064 * 0 + 0.288 * 1 + 0.432 * 2 + 0.216 * 3 = 1.8 E(picking three dogs) = 0.064 * 3 + 0.288 * 2 + 0.432 * 1 + 0.216 * 0 = 1.2
In short: E(season) = Linesmakers – SUM(Dog picked * (Fav chance to win – Dog chance to win))
Get it? Every single time you choose an underdog, your expectation for the season is lowered by the difference of the chance to win between the favorite and the underdog. If you pick a 60%/40% dog five times, you’re lowering your E(V) by 5 * 20% = 1 win.
Why Pick Any Dogs at All? Excellent question. If your sole goal was to optimize your E(V) for the season, you shouldn’t pick a single upset. To beat the field of players in the pool, however, you will likely need to pick some upsets and hope luck is on your side. It’s always best to err on the side of caution, though. I can’t stress enough that you will very likely not need to be as far ahead of the linesmakers as you’d think. Let me show you the interesting results of my last three pools. Whopping sample size, I know.
2005, 52 person pool Linesmakers = 73% correct 1st place = +5 2nd place = +1 3rd place = -1
2006, 81 person pool Linesmakers = 58% correct 1st place = +17
2006, 20 person pool Linesmakers = 58% correct 1st place = +5
Unfortunately, I don’t have second and third place data for the 2006 pools, but notice that in 2005 if you’d picked every favorite you would’ve beaten out 50 people and taken third place. If you’d picked one upset in one week and been right, you’d have tied for second. There are two really important correlations here. The first is that the larger the field is, the better you’ll have to be. The second is that if the linesmakers are having a tough time as they did in 2006, you’ll need to be considerably better than they are.
How to Make Your Picks Set a goal for yourself based on the size of your pool before week one and the payout structure (if it’s 100% for first, aim higher). You’ll be picking 0-3 upsets per week over pretty much the entire season and you’ll be starting off conservatively. If you do well and reach your goal early in the season, your work is done. There’s no shame in picking only favorites for the remainder of the season. Actually, if you’d done just that in week five of 2006, you’d have gotten them all correct. As far as actually choosing which upsets, obviously the 48% dog is more likely to win than the 20% dog. I recommend ruling out all dogs that are 30% or less to win (or probably a 6.5 or worse dog if that’s the information you have).
Every Game Matters Equally! Whether it’s two Superbowl contenders or two weak teams with no playoff hopes, every game matters the same. I’d thought at one point that choosing the favorite every week for your local team’s game was a good strategy, because locals are more likely to pick the local team when it’s a dog. Also I was sure to pick the favorite when for example an undefeated team in week six was a road dog, because many people in my pool would overvalue the undefeated team as an upset. In retrospect, I was just justifying my decision to pick favorites. It doesn’t matter at all that I’m up that one game over everyone in my pool, what matters is that at the end of the week I’m up over the linesmakers. Keep your eyes on the prize, peeps.
The Cost of Being a Fan Many poolers become fixated on their favorite team and pick them every week, fav or dog. If you were a San Diego fan, this year didn’t hurt too much because they were favored in pretty much every game and they won almost all of their games, anyway. But if you were a Raiders fan and refused to pick their opponents despite what the linesmakers were saying, it was a rough year for you. And you shouldn’t have to deal with giving away money if you’re already miserable come Monday mornings. Think of it as a hedge: when you bet against your team you’ll either be happy that your team won or that you increased your chances of winning the pool.
Common Myths and Sure Bets Division games – At one point in time, I reasoned that the linesmakers probably did a better job at drawing up lines for division games due to the plethora of information, so I refused to pick an upset. In 2005 the linesmakers were 72.7% on the whole and 70.8% in division games. In 2006 they were 57.8% on the whole and 58.3% in division games. Combined they were 65.2% on the whole and 64.6% in division games. So much for that theory.
Home dogs – I had a friend who maintained that home dogs won more often than they should, and would only pick them as his upsets. In 2005 home dogs won 28.4% of the time vs. the 27.3% for dogs overall. In 2006 home dogs won 41.8% of the time vs. 42.2% overall. Combined it comes to 35.0% vs. 34.8%, an immaterial difference over only 160 games.
Betting against the Super Bowl winner – One of the only exploitable lines in sports is this one. The world looks at the World Champion team as better than they truly are. This forces linesmakers to set lines that favor the champs more than they should. Remember, linesmakers aren’t really interested in the game; they want to set a line that will get equal action on both sides which locks in a profit. In a league where you have to pick with a line, this is your best bet until the champs lose, when the edge disappears. But even in pick ‘em leagues it helps to be aware of this phenomenon.
Becoming More Aggressive There may come a point in the season where luck has gone the wrong way too many times and it’s time to start making a move. In other words, if you picked only favorites from hereon out, you’d stand no chance at victory. As the season wears on if you’re significantly behind the leader of the pack, you’ll have to start picking more dogs and hoping for the best because it’s your best chance at a win. Another thing that might prompt you to adopt a more aggressive strategy is a league which doesn’t count your X number of worst weeks, which will bump up everybody’s total win percentage.
Tiebreakers Many leagues make a weekly payout in addition to the season-best payout. The only important thing that I can say here is to do the research. Every NFL betting website has a posted over/under. Note it, pay attention to how everyone else picks the tiebreaker, make sure you know the rules, and bet accordingly. For instance, in the 20 person league I won this year, we played with a “closest to MNF total score without going over” rule. I noted that nearly everyone in my league bet around the posted over/under, so I bet slightly above that point. Twice it came down to the tiebreaker, where my opponent had a total of X points and I had roughly X+2. If the total had been at least X+2, I’d have taken the week and if it’d been less than X I’d have split with my opponent. A little careful observation put me in a great spot to win.
Thanks for the insight from this forum, and best of luck to all next season. Go Bears.