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NFL Survivor Pool Strategy: How To Pick Like A Pro And Maximize Your Edge

28th August, 05:23

When it comes to sweating the results of an NFL game, there's nothing quite like the "win or you're out" format of an NFL survivor pool to thrust your emotions into overdrive every Sunday.

Most people don't know it, but 37% of heart attacks in the United States are caused by the victim's survivor pick giving up a touchdown and going down by three with two minutes left in the fourth quarter. If you play in NFL survivor pools, you know the feeling.

The good news is, there are proven strategies you can apply to give yourself a huge edge in survivor pools.

Over the past two seasons, our subscribers have reported nearly $1.5 million in survivor pool winnings using our data-driven picks and tools. In this post, we explain the key survivor strategy concepts that are responsible for that success, while also drawing parallels to value-based drafting in fantasy football.

Before we get started, let's explain what we mean by an NFL survivor pool.

In 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 sports book.

In the most basic NFL survivor pool (also known as an eliminator pool, knockout pool, suicide pool, or last man standing pool), you simply pick one NFL team per week. If your pick wins its game, you "survive" until the next week and get to pick again.

If your pick loses, your entry is eliminated from the pool.

The twist, in most pool formats at least, is that you can only pick each team once per season. Pick Seattle in Week 1 this year, and you won't be able to pick the Seahawks again.

That one constraint transforms survivor pool strategy into a complex and scary beast.

Just like in fantasy football, however, you can apply value-based principles to make smarter decisions and become a more competitive player. In survivor pools, picking for value requires what we refer to as the "Holy Trinity" of team data: win odds, pick popularity, and future value.

We'll explain those concepts shortly, but first, let's dive in to why value-based picking matters.

Imagine if fantasy football only had two rules:

Optimal drafting strategy for those rules would be simple. To maximize your odds to win a prize, at each position, you'd draft the player that is projected to score the most fantasy points over the first five weeks of the season.

As we all know, though, that's not how fantasy football works.

First, fantasy football is a game of constraints. For instance, you can't draft a player if one of your opponents has already drafted him.

Second, the goal of fantasy is to beat all your opponents, not to achieve some arbitrary performance milestone like 500 fantasy points in five weeks.

As a result, optimal fantasy football strategy is not simple. It's complex and dynamic, with lots of interdependencies. When your opponent drafts a player you were about to take with your next pick, you immediately need to reassess your options and make the next best decision given the options that remain.

NFL survivor pools feature similar dynamics. Just surviving until some arbitrary week does not guarantee a prize. You need to outlast all your opponents to win the pool, and consequently, the decisions your opponents make have a big impact on your best strategy to beat them.

The thing is, outlasting every single one of your opponents is a lot harder than most people think.

According to data from SurvivorGrid.com, over the last 9 NFL seasons an average of 0.57% of survivor entries nationwide have made it through Week 17 alive. So if your pool has around 175 or more entries, you should expect to have to go the distance to win it.

Even if your pool is smaller, you will still likely need to get multiple late season picks correct to win.

So to play in survivor pools like a pro, the first myth you need to dispel from your mind is that doing whatever it takes to maximize your chance to survive the opening weeks (i.e. picking all the safest and usually most popular teams) is a good idea. It's rarely the smart way to play.

Just take a minute and think about the two potential outcomes of that strategy:

Outcome 1 is clearly bad. But Outcome 2 isn't exactly cause for huge celebration either. It provides the illusion of being good ("Woot, I'm still alive in Week 8 this year!"), when in fact your odds to win the pool would likely not have gone up very much. After all, most of your opponents would still be alive too.

Another thing to keep in mind is that in NFL survivor pools, there is no such thing as a "safe" pick. No team is a lock in today's NFL.

Consider that historically, 10-point favorites in the NFL have won about 85% of the time. Double digit favorites in the NFL are also rare, and in most weeks, especially as the season goes on and your quiver of available teams shrinks, you will need to pick smaller favorites than that (i.e. riskier teams).

But just for the sake of example, let's assume you can pick a 10-point favorite every single week. From a probability standpoint, you would have:

So on average, even picking a 10-point favorite every single week, you are not expected to survive past Week 5 in an NFL survivor pool. You're defying the odds just getting to Week 6.

In short, thinking that you're not taking substantial risks -- even if you pick the safest team every week -- is a fallacy. In addition, the safety premium between the biggest favorite and other larger favorites often isn't as large as people think. Often times, you're only taking a modest amount of additional risk by avoiding the biggest favorite.

To maximize your edge in an NFL survivor contest, you need apply a thought process similar to value-based drafting in fantasy football. You need to evaluate pick decisions based on what you expect your opponents to do that week and in future weeks, and not only on a team's chance to win.

To do this level of pick optimization, you must consider the Holy Trinity of team data:

Win odds are the most basic element of survivor pick strategy. It is, after all, a survivor pool, so it's paramount to understand that Philadelphia (an 8-point favorite at post time) has about an 75% chance to beat Washington in Week 1, while the LA Rams (a 3-point favorite) only have about a 60% chance to beat Carolina.

Obviously, the higher a team's win odds are, the better. At TeamRankings, we use a combination of betting market odds and data-driven predictive models to calculate objective win odds for every NFL team.

Many survivor pool players do not appreciate the impact that pick popularity has on their odds to win their pool. If you need to beat every other player in your pool, at some point, by definition, you have to stop following the crowd. You need to pick a different team than your opponents do, and get that pick right, and hope your opponents get their picks wrong.

Although safety is important, identifying choice opportunities to pick against the crowd is therefore critical to maximizing your edge. It's often beneficial to sacrifice a few percentage points of safety to pick a team that is much less popular. (Our NFL Survivor Picks product gathers data from multiple nationwide survivor pool sites to estimate pick popularity each week.)

For example, if you think half of your pool is going to pick Seattle in Week 1, then it would almost certainly be unwise to pick the Seahawks. As of post time, Seattle has about 80% win odds over Cincinnati, while four other teams in Week 1 had win odds of 72% or greater -- certainly riskier, but not by a huge amount.

If Seattle sucks up a very large percentage of the pool's picks, then one of those other teams will likely be relatively unpopular as a result, given the comparative level of safety it offers. Taking on some additional risk to avoid Seattle to pick that alternative team would likely increase your odds to win the pool.

To show you why that is, let's introduce the concept of Current Week Expected Value, a metric that combines both win odds and pick popularity.

The concept of expected value (also referred to as "EV") considers all the possible outcomes of making a particular survivor pick.

Instead of only considering the risks (i.e. a potential pick's win odds), it also factors in the possible rewards (i.e. scenarios where the pick wins but other picks lose).

Here's a simplified example of how it works.

Let's say you enter a single week survivor pool during NFL Week 1 with 9 other people. The prize pot is $1,000, and the pot will be split equally among any players who survive the week. If no entry survives, you play the same game again next week.

However, the rules are that you can only pick a team from one game, Pittsburgh at New England. The Patriots are favored by six points, and historically teams favored by six win about 70% of the time.

Should you pick New England or Pittsburgh in this 10-entry survivor pool?

Comparing Expected Values

If you're a smart survivor player, the first thing you'd do is try to project how your opponents will act.

The table below shows the expected value of different scenarios, based on certain numbers of your opponents picking New England vs. Pittsburgh. Since it's highly unlikely that all or almost all of your opponents will pick underdog Pittsburgh, we didn't list out all the potential scenarios.

Again, "EV" stands for Expected Value, which in this case is the expected payout from the $1,000 prize pool in each scenario.

If your goal is to maximize your expected profits from this survivor pool, you must at least consider picking Pittsburgh -- a team that has less than a 50% chance to win! But the numbers don't lie. If you are confident that two or fewer of your nine opponents will pick Pittsburgh, picking the Steelers offers a higher expected return.

Taking additional risks takes guts, even if the numbers justify it. Most people would rather have a 50% chance of winning $10 than a 10% chance of winning $100, even though the expected value of the latter proposition is twice as high.

Psychologically, it's even more difficult to take additional risks early in the season, when the worst-case outcome would be an early exit from the pool. (Again, that fallacy of thinking that some much safer alternative exists, when it usually doesn't.)

If your strategy is to wait until the later weeks to take some calculated gambles on riskier teams, you could miss the best opportunity of the entire 2019 season to have a big percentage of your pool get eliminated while your pick wins.

In Week 3 last year, making an early calculated gamble to avoid overwhelmingly popular Minnesota helped a lot of people win survivor pools. Minnesota's upset loss eliminated almost 60% of still-alive survivor entries nationwide.

Of course, most survivor pools don't last just one week. That brings us to future value, the final component of the Holy Trinity in addition to win odds and pick popularity.

The concept of future value in survivor pools is straightforward in theory. When you "burn" one of the better teams in the NFL by using it as your survivor pick in a given week, you typically increase your odds to survive the week (good), but you no longer have that team available to use in the future (bad).

However, coming up with a precise calculation of a team's future value gets quite complicated, because future value isn't determined solely by how good a team is.

To understand the true opportunity cost of burning a particular team as a survivor pick in a given week, you first need to consider all the remaining games that team has, and determine in how many future weeks that team is likely to be a compelling survivor pick.

Week By Week Win Odds Dynamics

Even elite teams will have some tough future matchups (e.g. on the road against another good team) where their win odds won't be high enough to make them an attractive survivor pick consideration, no matter how unpopular a pick they may be. For that reason alone, survivor players often assume a good team has more future value than it actually does.

In addition, from a relative safety perspective, you need to evaluate the universe of potential pick options in each future week.

In some weeks, there may be only one or two teams with a really juicy matchup, and you'll put yourself at grave risk if you burn those teams earlier. Even mediocre teams can have reasonably high future value, if they happen to be one of the only teams with a good matchup in a particular future week.

Future Pick Popularity

But that's not all. Precisely evaluating a team's future value requires further analysis, because you also need to project how many of your opponents will have used that team by each future week. With that data, you can predict which teams will be the most popular picks in your pool in every future week.

One of the worst scenarios in the survivor pool universe is when you (a) take extra risk to save a good team for a future week, (b) survive until that week, and then (c) that team is actually a very popular pick -- to the point where it's a higher EV decision NOT to pick them.

Factoring In Pool Size

We're still not done. A team's future value is also dependent on your pool size, and consequently, how long your pool is expected to last.

For example, Kansas City may end up being the biggest favorite of Week 15 this year, when the Chiefs host Denver. But if you're in a 10-person NFL survivor pool, your pool probably will have ended by Week 15.

So it doesn't make sense to give Kansas City as much future value credit as you would give them if your pool had, say, 500 entries, and was therefore likely to require 17 weeks of picks.

NFL survivor pools are wild and fun contests. From a strategy perspective, they are also incredibly complex. Figuring out your optimal pick strategy from week to week takes a lot of data collection and a lot of math. There's no simple formula for doing it, which creates a wide skill gap between sharp players and recreational players.

(We haven't even touched on the strategy of playing multiple entries in a survivor pool, or across several survivor pools, to diversify your risk -- a dynamic that introduces even more pick optimization complexity. Or rule variations like two picks per week late in the season, which often impact optimal pick making even in much earlier weeks.)

Still, the journey of a mile begins with the first step.

The goal of this post was to explain some of the foundational strategies that will increase your odds to win NFL survivor pools. The safest pick of the week may also be the pick that gives you the best chance to win your pool -- but often times it's not. Simply giving more consideration to pick popularity and future value when choosing between potential weekly survivor picks should help increase your odds to cash.

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

It leverages betting market odds and objective game predictions, aggregates national survivor pick popularity data, projects future pick popularity, takes into consideration the picks you've already made, and adjusts your weekly recommended picks for factors like your pool's size and specific rules.

It even handles multi-entry pick optimization for up to 30 unique entries in a single pool or across pools. In fact, the product is so advanced we had to come up with an appropriately technical, massively creative name for it: NFL Survivor Picks.

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

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