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DFS 101: Getting started in daily fantasy sports

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

Hi everyone! Welcome to the world of daily fantasy sports, where you don't automatically lose your entire season when three of your first four picks in your season long league get hurt in the first two weeks of the season. (That's never happened to me before...why do you ask?)

In this article, I'll be giving you all the details you may need to dive into the world of daily fantasy: common terminology and what it means, strategy talk, and much more. I'll be talking about it through the lens of DraftKings, which is where I nearly exclusively play (you can find me under the username DerekDevereaux); however, I'll touch on other sites as well throughout the piece.

Let's get started.

First things first: My golden rule.

Always build your lineups to achieve the desired result you want for the contest you are entering it in.

That may not make a lot of sense to you right now. Trust me, it took me years of playing DFS contests to figure it out. Keep that in the back of your mind, and refer back to it constantly, and you can become successful - even profitable - playing daily fantasy sports.

This is a football site, but the concepts apply across all sports.

Trust me. I'm a three-time GPP soccer.

Wait, what's a GPP?

Yes, time for some definitions. GPP stands for Guaranteed Prize Pool. It's the amount of money guaranteed in a specific contest. This has since evolved to be synonymous with Tournaments, which are top-heavy contests where anywhere between 15-25% of winners win and 70-85% lose. You ever see those advertisements where they say that someone is going to win ONE MILLION DOLLARS?! Those are tournaments, and it is extremely hard to win one of these contests. First place wins big money, and the 25% percentile make a very miniscule amount of money.

You keep saying 'contests.' What's that?

Each "game" that you can play is called a "contest" in DFS terminology. You pay an entry fee to enter, "draft" (more like "select") your team, and you've entered the contest.

Got it. Are there other types of contests besides those GPP tournaments?

There are! In fact, one of the ones I'm most successful at are "cash" games. Those games are typically one of four things:

  • Double up contests, where approximately the top 43% in the contest double the amount of money they put in. Enter $3 for a chance to win $6, for example.

  • Triple up contests, where approximately the top 30% in the contest triple the amount of money the put in. Enter $3 for a chance to win $9, for example.

  • 50-50 contests. These differ ever-so-slightly from Double up contests, in that the top 50% win, but they only win 1.8 times the amount of money they put in. So the top 50% that enter $3 win $5.40, for example.

  • Head-to-head contests. This is pretty simple. You versus another player. Winner takes 1.8 times the amount of money put in, with the site taking the remaining as rake. Enter a $3 head-to-head to win $5.40, for example.

Rake? Like leaves?

If only they would rake those instead of our money. Rake is basically how these sites make money. They take a portion of the money entered as a house fee, called rake, and then pay out the rest. As an example:

  • 62 people enter a $1 double up contest. That means $62 has been entered for this contest. (Please double check my math on that.)

  • The contest pays out the top 27 places, meaning the top 27 people double their money. $54 is being paid out. (27 places win $2 = $54)

  • The remaining $8 is the rake that the site takes in as a profit for hosting the contest. (By percentage, $8 on a $62 entry fee contest is a hare under 13%).

Wait. There's math, too?

You don't need to know math to be successful at daily fantasy sports, but there are some math concepts that you'll hear quite often from successful players. More on that later when we get into strategies - we'll be getting familiar with terms like leverage and statistical probabilities. Riveting stuff!

Okay, I think I understand some stuff. What site should I play on?

They all are great, honestly. It ends up being personal preference, as there are slight nuances to each in how they handle scoring in each sport, in how they price players, and the sizes of contests they run, among other items. I would, however, recommend sticking to just one site and mastering things there, as things can get convoluted and lost in the shuffle if you're trying to play on multiple sites. As mentioned before, I play on DraftKings. Mikey plays on FanDuel (and Underdog which is a completely different animal). Yahoo also has daily fantasy sports, and there are many up-and-coming sites that are totally fine to play on, too (Drafters, for example).

I've made my decision on which site to play. I've put some money in my account. What should I do next?

Check to see if your site offers Beginners Only contests. The prizes are lower, but you won't go up against people who have been playing for years who understand how to play each contest. These give you the best chance to play people similar to you, just starting out, and theoretically give you a higher probability of making money - or even winning outright.

From there, we'll dive back into the difference between GPPs and Cash games.

I've decided I want to enter a GPP.

Great! GPPs pay out around the top 15-25% of entries in a progressive fashion - that is, the higher you place, the more money you win. Remember that ONE MILLION DOLLARS contest from earlier? Second place gets paid like $200,000. A lot of money! But also $800,000 less than first place. And if you're at the bottom of the "winning" entries? You're probably only making 1.5 times what you entered.

When you're playing GPPs, it's very, very important to understand that you want to give yourself the best chance of being as high up on the leaderboard as possible - and be unique doing it. This is where the concept of leverage comes in. Could you imagine taking first place for ONE MILLION DOLLARS and then realizing you have the same exact lineup as nineteen other people, meaning you only get one-twentieth of the prizes? Disappointing to say the least. (It doesn't math out exactly that way, because the 2nd through 20th prize money adds in the split pool too...but you get the point.)

In these contests, you want to attempt to have as much upside as you can while also not thinking about what probably "is" the best plays across the board. I kid you not, Ryan Fitzpatrick has won someone a million dollars on DraftKings at least once for the past three or so years.

At the same time, you don't want to be so far off the board that you don't give yourself a likely probability of winning, either. Taking the fifth wide receiver on a bad team to gain leverage doesn't help you increase your chances of winning, it only helps you increase your chances of being unique. This delicate balance is the hardest thing to master, but it's what takes average players to good players and good players to great players.

Helpful hints

  1. Keep an eye on popular sources of fantasy information and see who they're talking about. Obviously that should include us (Subscribe below!), but check up on places like ESPN to see who they're talking up. The more you see a player's name, especially on the big sites, the more likely that player is to be owned. They might be a good play, but if everyone is playing that player, is the probability he exceeds expectations higher than the amount that he is owned? (LEVERAGE)

  2. Stacking is a great way to limit yourself to only needing a few outcomes to succeed rather than a bunch of outcomes to succeed. It's a popular strategy in GPPs especially. It's simple: When a QB throws a touchdown, they need to throw it to someone. Having both players means you get points from both of them on one play; if you didn't stack them, you'd only get points from one of them. In basketball, a point guard passes the ball to a player who hits a three pointer. You get points for the assist and points for, well, the points. You get the idea. Stacks tend to work best when games are expected to be close. You don't want to put all your eggs in one basket, so you don't want your entire lineup to be from one game, but if you can narrow your lineup down to between three and five games, you only have to get those games right rather than picking a player from every game. For football, I usually like to play one of the following for stacks:

    1. A 3-1 stack; that is, three players (including a QB) from one side of a game and then one player from the other team to pair with them. For example, if I thought AJ Green was a good play that would go lower owned and I could get leverage on the field with that, I may play him with Joe Burrow and Tyler Boyd together. If they're playing the Steelers, I may play, say, Juju Smith-Schuster in that same lineup. In this scenario, I hope that the game is high scoring, that the Bengals funnel through the passing game and that James Conner stays heavily involved through the contest.

    2. A 2-1 stack; that is, two players (including a QB) from one side of a game and then one player from the other team to pair with them. For example, Aaron Rodgers throws a lot to Davante Adams. There's your two. Then, on the other side, I pair them with Adam Thielen, and I hope the game is a shootout.

    3. A 3-0 stack; that is, three players (including a QB) from one side of a game and then not playing anyone from the other side of the game. I rarely do this, but I would consider it in what could be a lopsided affair. I'd likely play a QB and a pass catcher and a running back (hopefully one that also can catch passes) together.

    4. A 3-2 stack; that is, three players (including a QB) from one side of a game and then two players from the other team to pair with them. I also rarely do this, but it's not uncommon to see them. The reason? It increases your risk when you do this. More than half of your lineup is tied to one game, and you need too many pieces to have elite scores in order for that to happen. Of course, if that one game does go off for like 80're likely in a really good spot.

  3. Don't be afraid to take calculated risks. Is Ryan Fitzpatrick the best QB in the NFL? No. Is he even the best QB for his price in a given slate? He might not be. But if only 1% of the entries have him, and he has a 3% chance of over-performing, and you decide to play more than the field of other entries has him? That's you gaining leverage. And if Aaron Rodgers is 10% owned and he only has, say, a 6% chance of over-performing his price, why would you play him? (Side note: a slate is the number of real-life games within a given contest. A "13 game slate" contains 13 NFL games to pick players from, for example.)

  4. The larger the contest, the more leverage you’ll likely need, because you’ll need to beat more people to take first place. In addition, note that some contests have a maximum number of entries per person as well; as a general rule of thumb, people tend to take fewer risks in their lineups in contests that only allow users to enter a smaller amount of lineups in it (single entry or three-max entries, for example.) They also tend to take fewer risks as you go down the entry fee scale...something to keep in mind as well.

  5. Also, and this is more of a side note, you'll see contents called Satellites or Qualifiers in the lobbies as well. Don't enter those. Essentially, you have to win the contest just so you can can earn a ticket into a more expensive contest or a live final that you have to pay taxes on, and you aren't guaranteed to even make money from that next contest. Skip them, and if you want to enter the contest the ticket is for, just shell out the money to do it.

That all sounds complicated. Maybe I should just play those cash games.

Also great! These are my sweet spot. All you're looking to do is get into the money here. It doesn't matter if you take first or third or 16th. Everyone makes the same money. Being unique doesn't matter, really - you just want to win.

In these contests, eating chalk (fantasy football jargon that refers to the highest-owned/most popular players) can actually be smart - so long as they are chalk for good reason. What you want to avoid is two things:

  1. Not having a chalk player that scores a lot of points

  2. Having a chalk player that doesn't score a lot of points

Within cash games, it's also important to note the contest sizes and how many entries you're allowed to have in each contest. Generally speaking, the larger the contest size, the more likely it is that chalk will be less owned, whereas the smaller the contest size, the more likely it is that chalk will be more owned.

Chalk is important, but reducing the amount of variance in your lineup is the most important. You want guys who have what we call floors, which means they're likely going to get you at least some points, even if they don't have high ceilings, meaning they may not score a huge amount of points. DeSean Jackson either gets you virtually nothing or he has two long touchdowns - that's great for GPPs, but not so much for cash games. Remember, all you need to do is get in the money and you make the same amount regardless of where you finish in the money.

Which brings me back to my golden rule:

Always build your rosters to achieve the desired result you want for the contest you are entering it in.

Most important, have fun.

You can find my articles each week here on Basement Brewed Fantasy Football, which will include a weekly Preview & Picks piece for each main slate on DraftKings and a weekly Review piece (which is actually the more important piece to read in my opinion) where I go over who I played, why I played them, and my results for the week.

Make sure you subscribe below to get the latest updates from the entire BBFF team, join us on Facebook and reach out to me on Twitter for any further advice. Best of luck in your new DFS adventures!

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