Basic DFS Strategy: 50/50s & Head To Heads
The strategies for 50/50s and head-to-head contest in daily fantasy sports are more or less the same, so we cover them both on this page. Look at some of the daily fantasy sports stats sites. Notice a difference in the average number of points required to win a 50/50 versus a head-to-head? If you do, it's probably small. Don't worry too much about that point difference when planning a strategy.
One might think that the strategy for these contests is more or less the same as for larger tournaments, but one would be wrong. Sure, the basics of doing research and looking for value apply to both kinds of games. But if you took an approach that was almost diametrically opposed to the advice on this page about guaranteed prize pool strategy, you'd probably do alright. In fact, some would probably excel.
The rest of this page goes into considerably more detail with specifics about fantasy sports strategy for cash games.
Professional Fantasy Sports
Some have a goal to pursue daily fantasy sports for a living. They need to get ready for a hard grind. It takes dedication and work. Yeah, it's just playing a game for money, but that doesn't mean it's easy money. Like poker players or professional sports bettors, the professional fantasy sports player is going to need dedication to the craft.
The players who succeed do research and study the numbers. They watch a lot of games. They think about what they're seeing on the television screen and on their computer monitor. Professional fantasy sports require a combination of a strong stomach and an analytical mind.
The gamblers who tend to do well as pro fantasy sports players tend to be poker players and card counters—the kinds of players who apply a tiny edge consistently and repeatedly. The craps players who play fantasy sports tend to focus on the tournaments. They love the adrenaline high, the risk, and the promise of a big reward.
If and when you do decide to pursue this hobby as a profession, you're probably going to want to focus on what are called "cash games"—50/50s and head-to-head contests. These are the bread and butter for the professional player. These are the games poker players love. They're the games that bore the craps players.
These cash game contests pay out 50% of the time. That's obvious in a heads-up situation, but with a larger field, that might warrant more explanation. A 50/50 contest is one in which 50% of the participants get paid, but the prize money for all of them is the same.
The main aspects of these cash games that make them attractive to the professional player are the low risk or ruin and the steady, predictable growth in bankroll. Tournaments are more fun for gamblers, but if you want to play for money, you're not looking for excitement. Instead, you just want to grind out small wins, day after day, week after week.
Even big believers in guaranteed prize pool tournaments (GPPs) and big payouts should diversify their bankrolls by playing in a number of 50/50s and head-to-head contests each week. This enables them to maintain their bankrolls while still pursuing the big ROI potential from the GPP tournaments.
In fact, these characterizations probably aren't entirely fair. Smart daily fantasy sports players can achieve amazing ROI playing in GPPs, especially if they get involved in lots of overlay situations. Aspiring professionals should really learn to approach both games for different reasons.
As we mentioned at the start of this article, the required strategy for GPPs is very different from the required strategy for cash games. We suggest learning how to play both types of contests effectively, so you might like to look at our article on DFS strategy for guaranteed prize pool tournaments.
In finance, this kind of combination is considered diversifying your portfolio. For example, financial planners often suggest that you subtract your age from 100. That number is the percentage of your money that you should invest in the stock market. The rest should be invested in bonds.
In daily fantasy sports, cash games are like bonds. They're not sexy, but you can count on them. GPPs and tournaments are like the stock market. They're volatile and carry more risk, but they provide potentially greater returns.
The smart investor has money in both.
Statistics, Data & Consistency
One could easily take two players with the same average score each week and find one who's a winner and one who's a loser.
Player 1 is focused on consistency, and every day, every week, he puts 150 points on the board. This might vary by five or ten points, but for the most part, he's consistently above average. Not a lot above average, but above average. He wins about 57% of the contests he enters.
Player 2 is focused on big scores. One week he puts 100 points on the board. The next week, he puts 200 points on the board. He runs like this all season. He loses all of the games where he scores 100 points, and he wins all of the games where he scores 200 points. He wins about 50% of the contests he enters.
Obviously, if the players are sticking with head-to-head and 50/50 contests, then the player who wins 57% of the time is going to show a steady profit. But the player who only wins 50% of the time is losing money contest after contest because of the 10% commission.
On the other hand, Player 2 might be profitable in tournament situations. Assume that his 200 point weeks land him in the top 15% or so. He sees correspondingly higher payouts when he wins. That can more than compensate for the lower percentage of wins.
If you want to be successful at cash games then you need to show consistency, and that means showing a good winning percentage.
A player needs to win 55.56% of the head-to-head or 50/50 contests in order to break even. That's because the sites keep a 10% commission when setting up the prize pools.
Here's an example.
- A player is playing a heads-up contest with a $100 buy-in.
- The total entry fee is $200
- The site keeps $20 commission.
- The winner therefore gets $180.
If he wins 50% of the time and loses 50% of the time, he's going to be up $80 every time he wins and down $100 every time he loses. It doesn't take a mathematician to see how a 50% win rate loses money over the long run.
But 55.56% is the break even percentage. If a player can increase his winning percentage beyond that, he's going to show a long term profit. The higher the winning percentage, the better the return on investment (ROI).
Here's an example.
- Player A wins 58% of the time.
- He starts the season playing 100 heads-up contests a week.
- He risks $10 on each contest, investing a total of $1,000.
- He wins 58 times each week, for $18 each time.
- His total weekly return is $1,044 (58 x $18).
- His profit is $44; a 4.4% return on investment.
- Player B wins 60% of the time.
- He enters the same contests as Player A.
- He wins 60 times each week, for $18 each time.
- His total weekly return is $1,080 (60 x $18).
- His profit is $80; an 8% return on investment.
The difference might not seem a lot, but an 8% return on investment will compound at a much faster rate than the 4.4% rate.
Successful cash game players in daily fantasy sports track their winning percentages. Your goal should be to increase that winning percentage by as little as 1/10 of 1% each week. Every tiny percentage point counts.
Track your winning percentage for tournaments and cash games separately. Set goals and work hard to achieve them. You will always miss a target you can't see.
Tips for Stacking Players
Stacking players involves taking players from the same team and/or the same game in a lineup. Our page about strategies for GPP tournaments suggests taking a quarterback/wide-receiver stack in hopes that they'll see a breakout week. This means risking having a bad week, because if the quarterback does badly, the wide receiver will, too. But if one of them has a breakout week, then odds are they'll both have a breakout week.
In a 50/50 or head-to-head contest, players must take a very different approach. You want consistency, right? One way to get it is to find a football game that's projected to be close but high-scoring. You can find high scoring games by looking for games with a high over/under. You can find games that are expected to be close the same way—by researching the lines set by the sportsbooks in Las Vegas.
Draft the #1 running back from both teams, and you'll have locked in a likely minimum number of points. Both teams are expected to score a lot of points, because the high/low on the game was high. And since neither team is a huge underdog, it's clear that both teams are expected to score a lot of points.
In baseball, though, a different approach becomes necessary. Having a pitcher from one side and hitters from the other side guarantees that one side is going to suffer and the other side excels. That's because there's a direct correlation between the opponents' performance. In football, if a running back for one team performs well, it has no real effect on the opposing team's running back's performance.
In baseball, if a pitcher does well, the other team's hitters suffer. They have a direct relationship. One of the most basic strategy tips for 50/50 and head-to-head fantasy baseball contests is to avoid lining up a pitcher on one team while lining up the batters from his opponents. That's entirely different from football, where stacking opponents makes sense a lot of the time.
Consistency & Median Point Projections
This page hammers away at the concept of consistency, but that's because it's crucial to becoming a winning player in this type of contest. Luckily, we have a good idea of how consistent various positions are in certain sports.
Here are some examples for football.
We know that kickers consistently score few points. Spending a lot of a salary cap on a kicker is just foolish. (Catchers are the baseball equivalent of kickers by the way.)
On the other hand, running backs are far and away the most consistent scorers on a fantasy football team. They just plain handle the ball more often than the wide receivers and tight ends.
Sure, a tight end or a wide receiver might get the occasional big play for a lot of yards, but remember—we're not looking for occasional big plays. We don't want to score 200 points every other week and 100 points every other week. We want 150 points every week, remember?
You get that consistency, in fantasy football, by focusing on consistent running backs with predictable performances every week. Some running backs are more consistent than others, too—these are the running backs that catch passes. Since they're versatile, they tend to have more opportunities to score fantasy points.
Quarterbacks are the second most important position in 50/50s and head-to-head contests. After running backs, they're the most consistent players. Versatile quarterbacks perform more consistently than specialists, too. You want quarterbacks like Tony Romo, who carries the ball himself relatively often. This gives him multiple opportunities to gain yards, which translate into fantasy points.
Take the same approach to fantasy baseball contests. Draft consistent players who are going to put a lot of points on the board. This is true for both pitchers and hitters. Starting pitchers are always going to be the most important players in a fantasy baseball contest, and 50/50s and head-to-head contests are no exception. The most important statistic to look at is how often they throw strikes. With hitters, focus on the players' home run stats.
Floors Versus Ceilings
On our page about GPP strategy, we suggest looking for players with the potential to score really big. That's called having a high "ceiling".
Don't focus on a player's ceiling in 50/50s and head-to-head contests. Instead, focus on their "floor". In other words, each player in a lineup should have a high minimum score. The entire lineup should have a high minimum score.
Instead of focusing on having a higher ceiling, set a goal to reduce variance by having a higher floor. That change in focus is the key to winning more often in cash games.
For example, someone might choose a wide receiver in a GPP because he has the potential to score 40 points. That's his ceiling. His floor might be 5 points, though. In a 50/50 or head-to-head contest, smart players might pass this player by in favor of a player who has a floor of 20 points. He's not really concerned with his ceiling. He cares about his minimum score and his average score.
Taking that approach with every player in a lineup results in drafting a team with a good chance of winning a high percentage of 50/50s and head-to-head contests.
We've already made the same point a few times in this article, and we'll make it one more time now; the key to winning cash games is consistency. The same strategies for 50/50s work for head-to-head contests and vice-versa. Lower risk and maximize the lowest possible score.
It's easiest to understand this concept by contrasting it with the appropriate strategy for large tournaments. In those contests, contestants embrace volatility, because it's impossible to win unless they have a huge score.
In GPPs, go for players with a high ceiling. Then hope to get lucky. In 50/50s and head-to-head contests, go for players with a high floor. Then you're safe.
Conservative, consistent, boring players are the best friends of the cash game specialist.
Author: Brad Johnson
Updated: October 2015
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