Hello and howdy, the name’s Gabriel. This series isn’t going to be about numbers or player analysis, there are already plenty of experts who do a much better job than I ever could in that regard. Instead, I’d like to talk about the strategy and psychology that goes into this game we all love. But first, let me give you a little background on myself.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been a sports nut. Watching, playing, doing pretty much anything involving sports was something I could get on board with. As I grew into my early teens though, I began to appreciate the concept of defeating an opponent on a mental playing field as much, if not more than a physical one. To this end I began playing poker and Magic: The Gathering competitively. Now before you call me out on my nerdom, let me explain a few things. MTG is actually a phenomenally complex game of strategy and psychology that requires a constant and fluid evaluation of the cards currently in play, as well as the ones in yours and your opponent’s hands. Most competitive MTG players will tell you that it matters very little what fantasy concepts and artwork are used on the cards themselves, it’s the gameplay that is so addicting and fun. Some, like myself, would even go so far as to say that if the cards were completely blank except for the rules text box the game would still be just as enjoyable! Poker is what it is, and since I assume most of you are at least familiar with the concept of the game, I won’t waste time going into detail.
The main thing I’ve noticed over the years whether I’m playing poker, fantasy sports, or MTG is that aside from the rules and gameplay variations, the fundamental concepts and strategies remain remarkably similar. With that in mind, and with an eye towards the future of building upon these concepts in later articles, I’d like to lay out three universal truths over the next three weeks and show where the lessons I’ve learned can be applied to successful fantasy sports strategy.
Sounds simple enough right? “Of course I’m playing to win” you say. “Why else would I be doing it?”
The truth of the matter is many people confuse playing to win with playing to not lose.
Often times, and often for a myriad of reasons, you’ll find yourself in a situation where the odds to win a league championship are clearly not in your favor. At this point many owners become even less likely to take large risks, instead choosing to try and ride it out while cursing their bad luck. The thinking goes something like “I’m already losing, I don’t want to end up losing more.” While this logic seems fine at first glance, you must fight it with every competitive ounce you possess. The reality is that you either have a chance to win or you don’t. Losing a little is the same as losing a lot because both paths end up on the spectator side of a league championship game.
In MTG you’ll often find yourself in a lopsided, losing position. If you continue to make normal, “business as usual” plays you’ll find yourself doing exactly what you’re supposed to in that situation, lose. The best players in the game have developed the ability to think outside the box, constructing lines of play that involve somewhat counterintuitive actions and are reliant on a bit of good fortune to aid them in turning the tides. Sometimes the good luck never comes. Sometimes the opponent sniffs out your plan and puts a stop to it. Sometimes you still lose, and that’s okay. You were losing just as much before as you were after. The difference being that sometimes the proactiveness will work out and an “unwinnable” game will suddenly morph into a victory.
In poker, this concept holds true as well. It always amazes me in tournaments how many people will allow themselves to be blinded out. The blinds are forced bets that certain players must make at the beginning of every hand and the reasoning is understandable. “I haven’t got a decent hand in forever, I’m just waiting for something solid so I can go all-in.” The problem is that eventually you’ve lost so many chips that even winning a pot where you go all-in essentially puts you back into the same predicament. The correct play is usually to look for the combination of a favorable situation and a decent hand as often as possible, choosing to make your stands there. Sure you’ll lose a fair amount of the time when your all-in push with K-10 is met by A-K, but if you didn’t make that play you probably weren’t going to win anyways. Sometimes you’ll even get lucky and win too! This is obviously a broad assessment of a much more complex scenario, but you can see the parallels.
“What does all this mean for fantasy sports” you might say? It’s simple really. Don’t allow yourself to be backed into a corner where you’re essentially out of contention and “playing to not lose.” If you’re going to lose, it’s far better to do it on your own terms, by making decisions that also give you a chance to win if the cards fall your way. You can never exactly know what your opponents are thinking, what the next card dealt will be, or who will tear their ACL this week. What you can do is make the play that gives you the highest percentage to win if all the other factors align in your favor.
If your team is mediocre and essentially a non-contender, don’t be afraid to get out there and shop your studs for some high upside 2 for 1 deals. Guys like Hakeem Nicks, Cam Newton, Steve Smith, and Matthew Stafford all have the talent to turn around what have so far been mediocre campaigns. If they do, dealing your stud to a frustrated owner for one of them and another solid player will be the best chance you have at storming back once the stretch run hits.
Thanks for reading folks, and make sure to come back next week when we discuss how to assign percentages to aid us in evaluating moves.
Follow me on Twitter @CrazyGabey.