Fantasy Football is very much like another of my favorite hobbies: POKER. Both of these hobbies require similar attributes in order to be successful, and, in delving further, both hobbies are very similar in the way they are played. Here we will take a look at those similarities.
SKILL VS. LUCK
Fantasy Football is about luck. There, I said it. Your fantasy schedule, injuries, one week playoff wonders and so on. It’s all luck. But why do some FF owners seem to have the luck on their side year in and year out? Because they have fantasy football “skill”. But wait a minute, you just said fantasy football was about luck, what does skill have to do with it? Well, much like in poker, skilled players have ways of creating their own luck. The key comes in finding the ways to “create” this luck.
In poker, a skilled player’s biggest weapon is knowledge. They know the rules of the game they are playing, they know the odds of hitting the cards they need and they can calculate their pot odds on the fly (this is the ratio of money already in the pot to how much it costs to call the bet). They know which hands are good hands to play, which hands look good but really are not that good except in particular situations (prime example is jack-ten), and which hands should pretty much never be played.
This is akin to a fantasy football owner knowing the ins and outs of his league rules and paying close attention to the news from around the NFL. A good fantasy owner knows that waiver requests are due on Tuesday night and starting lineups are due Saturday night. He knows that his league scoring system favors WRs, as RBs don’t get reception points and there is a bonus for longer TDs, so, while his opponents go the standard RB-RB-WR in the first three rounds, he locks up an RB and two top WRs in those same rounds, giving him a distinct advantage heading out of the draft.
The best poker players in the world are constantly focused on the task at hand, winning money. They know that the slightest lapse in focus can have a severely negative affect on their play. In a tournament, this can mean the difference between a million dollar payday and being busted out of the tourney early on.
The solid fantasy owner also pays attention to all of the news coming out of the NFL. He knows that a certain player is likely to miss 3 weeks with an ankle sprain or got hurt. He is not going to draft the player that is out for the season in the third round. He also keeps tabs on that backup rookie that has been getting a lot of praise in camp so that he can pick him up a week before he breaks out. The other owners will say he got lucky, but it was skill and knowledge that led that owner to pick up the hot free agent a week before anyone else heard of the guy.
The savvy fantasy owner pays close attention to the needs of the other teams in his league. He knows to strike with a trade offer when a team loses it’s starting QB to injury, and their backup QB is on bye the following week. He also pays attention for situations where he can move his fast starting backup RB for the slow starting stud RB that another owner is getting frustrated with.
Following up on this last thought, another trait of a skilled poker player is patience. This is also true of a good fantasy football player. A good fantasy player does not give up on his studs just because they are off to a slow start. He will not sell them low for the flavor of the week and he will not bench them for an inferior player.
In poker, there are times where you must fold hand after hand and you must not allow yourself to get impatient and play a weak hand, costing you lots of money you shouldn’t have lost. Just because Shaun Alexander has a bad game in week one doesn’t mean you should trade him for Reuben Droughns who had two TDs in week one or that you should bench him for Tatum Bell who had 100 yards in week one. You are playing a weak hand here, and may end up watching Alexander go off for a typical 125 yards and 2 scores, on your bench, because you were impatient.
Now, this is not to say that after 4 or 5 weeks of not performing that you don’t look to make a change to your starting lineup. Every successful poker player knows they will have losing sessions, the skill is knowing when to quit that session, regroup and come back firing the next day. You must be ready to go back to your stud as soon as there is a glimmer of performance, just don’t lose your cool and make a frantic decision after 1 or 2 bad games by your stud RB or WR. Even the best of players has a slump here or there. So, using the above example, if after 5 or 6 weeks Alexander has not broken 60 yards in a game and has only 2 scores, it may be time to switch him out for Bell who has been averaging closer to 80 yards and has 4 scores already. But you must be willing to go back to Alexander as soon as he shows his normal form, as slow start or not, he is still more likely to give you steady top performances than Tatum Bell is.
READING YOUR OPPONENT
In poker, a good player is always paying attention to what is happening at the table around them, whether they are still in the hand or not. They pay attention to the physical tells their opponents give off and they keep a mental note on their betting patterns. In poker, most tells are not as obvious as Teddy KGB and his rack of Oreos, but more subtle like a slight hesitation when bluffing, or always checking on the flop when they have a good hand. This allows you to make better decisions about the play of your hand, giving you a better shot at winning the pot.
In fantasy football, you can utilize these same types of non-verbal clues to your advantage. If this is a group you have drafted with before, study previous drafts and look for patterns. Perhaps one owner has gone RB-RB-WR-WR-QB for a few straight years or you notice that Tom picks his hometown QB in the third round every year. These patterns can clue you in on the direction they may go, especially useful if you have picks close to one another.
During the draft, pay attention to the reactions the owners make to the picks leading up to theirs, particularly if you draft between them and the current pick. If you see them cringe when the guy ahead of you takes a QB, it could clue you in that he is ready to go QB, so you can factor that into your own draft decision, especially if you also need a QB.
THE ART OF THE BLUFF
In poker, one of the most satisfying feelings is pulling off a bluff to rake in a pot you had no reason to win. But, in order to be successful with the bluff, you must properly set it up by showing down solid hands. Once your opponents have it in their heads that you are only playing solid, winning hands they will be less likely to call your bluffs and in turn will fold to your bluffs more often. The converse though is true, if you are always showing bluffs, you are more likely to be called on your bluffs, thus reducing their effectiveness.
In fantasy football, the bluff is more about spreading a mixture of information, and disinformation about your true feelings on players and your draft intentions. What this means is that you should not always hype the players you would avoid and denounce those you covet, but instead mix it up and hype some of those guys you like along with those you don’t. This way, your opponents won’t know for sure who it is you like and try to snatch them up just before you pick.
This misinformation can be very useful if your league is an auction league. If your opponents do not know who you really like, they will be less likely to take the chance of outbidding you on certain players in an attempt to drive their price up for you, as they think you may be doing the same to them. On the flip side, you can more safely bid up players your opponents covet, as they may think it is a player you also want and thus would be willing to keep outbidding you.
The true bluff comes when you raise the bid on a player by more than the minimum, in an attempt to make your opponents really think you want him, thus driving the price up faster, for your opponents. The risk, just as in poker, is that it is possible that your opponents will call your bluff, and in this case you are left with a player you don’t necessarily want at a price you didn’t want to pay. But, it is the willingness to take this gamble that gives you your advantage. You are the driver making others pay more for players they want and keeping the prices on players you want down.
THE LUCK FACTOR
Luck is something you can not avoid. It is there to give you a huge boost and then swat you right back down. You may catch that 7 on the flop to give you the lead over your opponents pocket kings, only to watch the river smite you as it brings another king for your opponent.
In fantasy football, you can not avoid the schedule. Inevitably you will have weeks where you score a ton of points, the second most in the league, but still lose to that week’s high scorer while you watch someone that scored half as many points get a win because they got lucky and were playing that week’s low scorer. I had this happen to me the other night in poker. I was dealt aces, kings then Big Slick (AK for those of you not familiar with poker lingo), all considered top 10 starting hands in Texas Hold Em, in a row, and I lost all 3 hands on the river to inferior starting hands. Luck of the schedule.
There are also just weeks where you have to make calls on game time decisions. All available information may say that your RB is not going to play, so you bench him. Then you get to make use of your NFL Ticket as Mike Shanahan starts him and gives him 25 carries and you watch the guy go off for 150 yards and 2 scores. All for your bench. This is like folding QJ to a raise (generally considered the proper play) only to watch the flop come down with two queens and a jack. You made the right play with the available information, and then got to sit back and watch what could have been a monster pot for you go to an opponent instead.
There are also those times where your opponent is forced to start the #4 WR for the Browns due to poor team management or injuries, and you get to watch that player get two TDs in the 4th quarter when the Browns were down by 35 points already.
These are the unavoidable luck items that can counter all of your preparation and strategy. However, these elements are minimized because you do all of that preparation and research. You are the one going in with the advantage the majority of the time, and in the long run, you will prevail.
Just as in poker, in fantasy football, over the long run the better prepared and skilled player will prevail. However, on any given hand, on any given Sunday, anyone can win. That is the beauty of both fantasy football and poker. The outcomes are not a foregone conclusion, like they would be if I were to play golf against Tiger Woods or run a sprint against Carl Lewis. However, in both poker and fantasy football, the dedicated player will take steps to minimize this luck and maximize their chances of winning.
Just remember to study your league, stay focused during the season, be patient with your star players, pay attention to your opponents and be willing to take a few risks here and there. Combine these aspects and you will take a big step to becoming your leagues fantasy football champion.
So, at your next fantasy football draft, be sure to bring your poker face and may all of your picks come up ACES!!!