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NFL Office Pools: How The Pros Dominate Football Pick'em Contests

25th August, 14:04

Besides being a fun complement to fantasy football, NFL pick'em contests and office pools can offer great profit opportunities. But to be a perennial contender in your NFL pick'em pool, you need to know the smart way to play.

In this post, just updated for 2019, we explain several strategy concepts that help maximize your edge in NFL pick'em pools. These strategies are based on objective research and real-world results, not opinions or theories.

How do we know they work? Our subscribers put these strategies into action, and 80% of them reported winning at least one prize in a football pick'em pool last season.

That level of success far exceeds expectations, and it's all based on the concepts below.

Before we get started, let's quickly explain what we mean by an NFL pick'em contest or pool.

In these types of pools, you play against other people -- not against a "house" like in traditional sports betting. You can challenge your friends or coworkers in an office pool, or compete in a public contest sponsored by ESPN, a local bar, or a casino sportsbook.

Typically you need to predict the winners (or point spread winners) of every NFL game over the course of the season. You also may need to assign "confidence points" to each of your picks, or perhaps only pick five or six games of your choosing each week. Many formats exist.

Examples include ESPN's Pigskin Pick'em, Yahoo's Pro Football Pick'em, the popular Westgate Las Vegas SuperContest, or more customized competitions you can set up on pool hosting sites like RunYourPool.

A lot of people think winning an NFL pick'em contest is simply a question of deciding which teams are more likely to win. Then, maybe throw in an upset or two each week and hope to get lucky.

That's not the right approach to dominating pick'em pools. In fact, there are two things wrong with it.

First, if you blindly pick all the most likely winners every week, it means you're only thinking about risk. You're minimizing your chance to get picks wrong, but not necessarily improving your odds to win the pool.

Improving your odds to win a pick'em pool requires a higher level of analysis. You need to evaluate both the risk and the potential reward of every pick you make.

Second, there are a number of contextual factors about every NFL pick'em contest that you should consider as you make picks each week. Examples include:

Many pick'em players completely ignore these factors. But they often determine whether picking the favorite or the underdog in a specific game gives you a better chance to win your pool.

We'll examine some of these factors at the end of this article, but first, let's talk about risk vs. reward.

It's pretty easy these days to estimate the chance that an NFL team wins or loses a game.

With a few clicks of your mouse, you can get high-quality game predictions that are either market-driven (e.g. Vegas odds) or data-driven (e.g. algorithmic predictions from our site, FiveThirtyEight, etc.). Averaging win odds or implied win odds from several smart sources can often improve prediction accuracy even more.

As long as you're willing to put in the work, you'll have a solid and objective measure of which teams are the favorites, and by how much.

You can then pick all the more likely winners, and toss your favorite coin for the 50/50 games. If your pool uses confidence points, you can simply rank your teams by win odds and be done.

The problem is that in pick'em pools, all winners aren't created equal. In fact, picking a winner may not be cause for much celebration at all.

What most pick'em players often forget is that there is only one way to win an NFL pick'em contest: you need to get some picks right that your opponents get wrong.

That is the only way to rise above a competitor in the pool standings.

So if you pick Seattle to beat Cincinnati in Week 1, and you get that pick right -- along with 96% of the rest of your pool -- then whoop-dee-do. Sure, it's better than getting the pick wrong, but your odds to win a prize in your pool have barely budged, since pretty much everyone else got it right too.

In short, your reward for picking a winner is directly proportional to the number of opponents who also made the same pick.

Get a pick right that no one else in your pool happens to make, and you can shoot up the leaderboard.

This smarter, risk vs. reward mode of thinking also has a big impact on how you should approach making upset picks in your NFL pick'em. In pick'em pools, some upset picks are much smarter gambles than others.

For instance, if you go out on a limb and pick 4.5-point underdog Atlanta over Minnesota as your big upset pick of Week 1, from a risk/reward perspective, the joke is almost certainly on you.

Why? Because based on national picking trends, about 30% of the public is on Atlanta in pick'em pools. So if you're lucky enough to be right, and your pool reflects the national averages, you'll score points that about 70% of your opponents miss.

That may sound pretty good -- until we tell you that Jacksonville is a 3.5-point underdog against Kansas City, and only 7% of the public is picking the Jaguars. In comparison to Atlanta, Jacksonville offers both less risk and a significantly higher potential if the pick is correct.

If you're dead set on making an upset pick in Week 1, picking Jacksonville and not Atlanta is almost always going to be a better decision in a pick'em pool.

(FYI, you can find all this info in the Data Grid feature of our Football Pick'em Picks product.)

The Atlanta/Jacksonville example above illustrates an important aspect of NFL pick'em strategy that many players don't understand or apply: game theory.

In short, sharp NFL pick'em players don't only try to figure out the most likely team to win. They also work hard to understand how their pool opponents are thinking.

This process typically involves reviewing weekly pick popularity data published by national pick'em contests, to help project how their opponents are likely to act. Then, the real pros also consider pool-specific biases they may be able to exploit (e.g. a pool full of Green Bay fans that refuse to pick against the Packers).

Applying this level of opponent reconnaissance to your pick making can greatly increase your expected pool profits.

Let's drill down into a very simple example to show how picking all the favorites may or may not increase your expected profit from a pool. In short, it depends on various characteristics.

With Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season coming up, Larry, Moe, Curly, and Shemp (aka the Four Stooges) have decided to compete in an NFL pick'em pool. Here's how it works:

The rules are simply to pick straight up NFL game winners, with one point awarded per correct pick. But the pool only lasts one week, and only includes the following three games:

Game Win Odds

The Four Stooges all have their own opinions on these games, but based on betting market odds and our Week 1 predictions, the objective win probabilities looked roughly like this at publication time:

When the pick deadline arrived, here's what all the picks looked like (win odds in parentheses, upset picks in bold):

Reviewing these picks, here's what you should notice:

By playing it safe in such a tiny pool, he let his opponents shoot themselves in the foot by picking too aggressively, giving himself a 42% chance to win in the process (compared to baseline win odds of 1-in-4, or 25%).

As a result, his expected payout is $168 (the $400 pot times a 42% chance to win) for an expected return of 68% on his $100 buy-in fee. Warren Buffett would be jealous.

The Other Guys

Moe has a 28% chance to win the pool, Curly has a 19% chance, and reckless Shemp only has a 10% chance.

At those pool win odds, Moe still has a positive expected return-on-investment (ROI) on his pool entry fees of 13%, but Curly and Shemp are expected to lose money.

Let's trace this overly simplified lesson back to game theory.

In a tiny pick'em pool, in which you only need to beat a small number of opponents, taking even moderate risks with upset picks can be too aggressive of a strategy, and will likely decrease your odds to win the pool.

Picking all favorites or "chalk" may look wimpy and draw the mockery of your pool opponents, but in some cases it makes the most sense.

In the example above, Larry is in the driver's seat with his all-favorites picks, but a big reason why is because he was the only player in the pool to pick all the favorites.

What if Moe hadn't picked Indianapolis to upset the LA Chargers, and had instead picked all favorites, exactly duplicating Larry's picks?

In that case, the best outcome Larry could hope for would be to tie Moe for highest score in the pool, and then to win the 50/50 straw draw to take home the pot. That change in dynamic decreases Larry's expected pool profits.

In this new scenario, Larry and Moe would both have a 32% chance to win the pool, and an expected ROI of 28% each. Curly and Shemp both would be slightly better off, but still expected to lose money.

So Larry's prospects decrease if another player ends up making the same picks as him, but playing it safe still gives him the best expected return of anyone in the pool (tied with Moe).

Something fascinating and fun happens when you significantly expand the pool's size, though.

Let's imagine a pool not with four entries, but with 400 entries: the Four Stooges and 396 of their closest lovable numbskull friends. Winner take all, same games to pick.

In a pool that big, an expected pick distribution might look something like this:

In bigger pools, public bias toward favorites often presents great opportunities to increase your expected pool profits by aggressively picking unpopular (and typically fairly risky) teams.

You just need to have the guts to trust the expected value calculations, and ignore the inevitable ridicule of your opponents.

(If there's one thing we've learned over years of helping subscribers win football pools, it's that making the best picks often requires thick skin. Your opponents will mock you if you pick all the favorites, and they'll mock you again if you make crazy looking picks -- even if you're playing optimally in both cases.)

By picking all underdogs, the Shemps still only have a very unlikely 10% chance to end up with the highest score in the 400-person pool.

But here's the kicker: when the Shemps' entry wins, each of them has a 1-in-10 chance of winning the straw draw and taking home the pot, since there are only 10 Shemps.

That means each Shemp has a 1% chance to win the pool -- a 10% chance to get the highest score, times a 10% chance to then win the straw draw -- and take home the $40,000 pot.

Combine the possible outcomes and probabilities (a 1% chance to win $40,000, a 99% chance to lose the $100 entry fee), and in the long run, on average, each Shemp is expected to get $301 back from each yearly $100 investment the pool. That's an expected return of more than 200%.

When Boom or Bust Beats Playing It Safe

In comparison, by picking all favorites in a much bigger pool, the Larrys will still get the highest score much more often than the Shemps do.

But when the Larrys win, each Larry still has to win a straw draw against 199 other Larrys in order to take home the pot. That's a crushing blow to expected profits, and on balance they come out much further behind. The Curlys are expected to lose money too.

In a bigger pool with a smaller number of games involved, playing it safe often gives players a false sense of hope. Most of the time, a very conservative player will get a higher score than a much riskier player, and end up finishing decently in the final standings. But even finishing in the top 10% of a 400-person contest (say, in 30th or 40th place) usually wins you nothing.

You usually need to win the damn thing (or finish in the top few places) to profit big. In big pools, making a bigger number of unpopular, often risky picks usually accomplishes that goal more often -- even if that strategy tends to bomb in the years it doesn't win.

We just demonstrated how pool size can impact optimal picking strategy in NFL pick'em contests.

Now, let's briefly review the implications of some other strategy factors. You can visit our Football Pick'em Picks site in the upcoming weeks to read more detailed content on these topics.

Confidence Points. We often see pick'em players making multiple upset picks with low confidence points. That strategy can be self-defeating in bigger pools and single-week pools especially. In essence, you're taking on a bunch of extra risk, but also not maximizing the possible rewards. (It also requires much more luck to get all your upset picks right, the more of them you make.) From an expected value perspective, it can be much better to consolidate your risk on your smartest upset pick or two, and make a more significant gamble in terms of confidence points.

Point Spread-Based Pools. It's certainly harder to pick against a point spread, since you'll rarely have more than a 55-60% chance of getting any given pick right. (If you think you can do better than that long term, you should become a professional sports bettor.) But point spreads are also the great equalizer in NFL pick'em pools, because even the dumbest player suddenly has a not-that-much-worse chance than the sharpest player in the pool to get a pick right. In general, players seem to greatly underestimate the impact of luck on winning a spread- based pick'em pool.

Pool Length / Total Number Of Picks. The more games included in your NFL pick'em pool, the less likely it is that luck plays a major role in the outcome. If you think you have a skill advantage over your pool opponents, playing in a season-long, "pick every game every week" pool will likely give you a bigger edge than playing selectively in single week contests or in a "Pick Five" or "Pick Six" contest like the Westgate SuperContest. You've got a reasonable shot of beating the best NFL bettor in the world in a one-game picking contest; not so much in a 1,000-game contest.

Season Prizes vs. Weekly Prizes. The prize structure of an NFL pick'em pool can make a big impact on optimal picking strategy. For example, the picks that maximize your odds to have the pool's highest score in a particular week will typically be riskier than the picks that give you the best chance to contend for a cumulative, end-of-season prize. To play optimally in a pool that offers both weekly and end-of-season prizes, you almost always need to decide which type of prize you want to "target" with your entry.

Early Season vs. Endgame Strategy. In most season-long NFL pick'em pools, it most often pays not to get aggressive too early, or to overreact to an especially bad week if you're confident in the quality of your picking strategy. You've got 17 independent weeks of picking to do, and the timing of your good vs. bad weeks (and of your opponents' good vs. bad weeks) will be unpredictable. You're almost certainly not "out of it" if you're only in the middle of the pack after Week 3, for instance, thanks to some early bad luck or good luck by your competitors.

In fact, the best strategy in a season-long pick'em pool is typically to play it quite safe in the early weeks, and hope that your opponents will shoot themselves in the foot by making too many risky upset picks.

Later in the season, you can reassess your position and potentially get more aggressive with your picks, based on where you are in the standings and your pool's prize structure.

If you've made it this far, you either have enjoyed what you've read or you have way too much free time on your hands. Thanks either way!

We hope this article has helped you think about NFL pick'em contest strategy in a more sophisticated manner, or at least shed some light on an aspect of picking strategy you may not have considered previously. Even if you just start consulting public picking trends data more often when making your weekly pick decisions, that's a win.

Putting all of these strategies into action, of course, is not easy. At the end of the day, to make the best picks, you need to consider everything we've mentioned in this post, then somehow translate all these considerations into the optimal weekly pick sheet for your specific pool.

Doing that takes a whole lot of data and complex math, and it's pretty much impossible to it by hand, or with Excel for that matter.

As geeky engineer types, our solution to winning more pick'em pools was to build technology to do all the heavy lifting. We've developed a product that algorithmically optimizes your weekly NFL pick'em pool picks based on many different strategy dynamics.

It leverages betting market odds and objective game predictions, aggregates national pick popularity data and projects your opponents' picks, and adjusts your weekly recommended picks for factors like your pool's scoring system and format, prize structure, and your position in the standings.

It also covers game winner or spread-based contests; confidence pools; and pools with end-of-season prizes, weekly prizes, or both. In fact, it's so advanced that we had to come up with an appropriately technical, massively creative name for it: Football Pick'em Picks.

If you learned something from this article, we encourage you to check it out.