Tuesday, September 4, 2012

UPDATED: How to win your Survivor Football Pool

--by Josh Suchon

My favorite football pool goes by many names. Some call it an Eliminator Pool. Others say “Last man standing” Pool. I’ve always known it as a Survivor Pool.

The basic rules: you pick one NFL game each week, point spreads don’t matter. If you win, you advance to the next week. If you lose, you’re done. In most of these pools, once you pick a team once, you can’t pick them again. I’m in a pool where you can pick the same team three times. I don’t like that rule, but I’m not the Commissioner. But in most pools, you can only pick a team once.

I’ve won two Survivor Pools in the last decade. I went 17-for-17 two years ago and split the pot with four others. I made it to Week 11 last year before losing, and week 9 three years ago. In 2003, I was one of two finalists and we split the first- and second-place money (a nice Christmas bonus for each of us).

These are my rules for how to win your Survivor Pool.

1. Never save a pick for later in the season. Depending on the entries in your pool, very few last 17 weeks. A lot of them don’t last 10 weeks. Don’t plan ahead. It’s all about winning each week. Don’t save New England for Week 5. Tom Brady can blow out a knee in Week 3 and you wouldn’t want to take the Patriots in Week 5.

2. Look at the point spread to decide on your candidates. The oddsmakers in Vegas are the smartest people in the room. No matter how much you think you know about football, the oddsmakers know more. Look at the five biggest point spreads each week. You should be picking one of those five teams. That team doesn’t have to cover. They just have to win. It goes without saying you shouldn’t ever take an underdog.

3. Don’t ever take your favorite to win or lose. My favorite team is the Raiders. I don’t ever pick them to win. Or lose. You have enough emotions going through your body when your favorite team plays. Don’t compound that anxiety by picking them to win, and don’t do something that will make you feel OK about your favorite team losing. Not to mention, you’re not very objective about your favorite team. They’re not as good as you think they are. They’re not as bad as you think they are. Just avoid your team.

4. Take the home team on Thursday night games, if the visiting team is in a short week. Road teams face a massive challenge. Play a game on Sunday, heal on Monday, prepare on Tuesday, fly on Wednesday, and play on Thursday? Unless the visiting team is dramatically better, and it’s a short flight (like Oakland to San Diego), take the home team. Not only will they win, they will win easily. If a team is traveling three time zones on a short week, they’re toast. Note: this does not apply in Week 1. Teams aren’t in their usual routine yet.

5. Avoid taking the road team in general. The deeper you get into your Survivor Pool, you might have to break this rule. This rule can be broken in extreme circumstances, like a 9-1 team playing on the road against a 1-9 team. Even then, I get nervous. The double-extra detail on this rule is don’t ever take an East Coast team playing on the West Coast. Recent studies on the effect of time-zone change on a body suggest it’s harder to go West and perform at an optimal level than it is to travel East. With replacement refs, it’s also natural to think the penalty flags they throw will be affected by the home crowd’s reaction.

6. Ride the worst team(s) in the league. Once you get to around Week 7-8, it’s clear which teams are the worst. You can’t pick the best team to win every week. But you can pick the worst team to lose every week. Personally, I get nervous taking a winless team, like an 0-7, because they have so much pride, they’ll try extra hard to avoid the embarrassment of a winless season. But once they’ve lost, I love riding the opponent of that hopeless team week after week.

7. Don’t take a rookie quarterback early in the year. Most of the time, a rookie will only start at quarterback if the team was lousy the year before, so this is usually a moot point. But it’s such a huge adjustment from college to the NFL, it’s hard to win. The deeper you get into the season, then it’s not as risky to pick a team with a rookie quarterback. The secondary rule is be wary of picking against the rookie quarterback early in the year. We just don’t know how Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III will respond the first few weeks. This year, avoid the Colts and Redskins altogether the first few weeks, until you get a better read on the rookies.

8. Avoid rivalry games. You know that cliché “throw out the records” when these rivals meet? Remember it. Avoid a Giants-Cowboys, or Raiders-Chiefs, or any other type of strong rivalry game. Crazy things happen when rivals meet. Keep this in mind in Week 1 this year.

9. Never select a team that’s using a backup quarterback. It’s the most important position on the field, and affects the outcome more than any other. If the starter is definitely out, don’t select that team. If the quarterback is doubtful or even questionable, avoid that team if possible. You’re only picking one game a week, you can find a healthy quarterback.

10. Don’t save a pick. Can’t stress this enough. That’s why it’s listed twice. Don’t. Ever. Save. A. Pick.

Most of the time, you can’t follow all 10 of these rules. You want to follow as many of these as possible each week.

When it comes to Week 1, know in advance that it’s the hardest week. It’s the most unpredictable week. There’s not much information you can use. Don’t get fooled by exhibition game results. When in doubt, follow the rules to eliminate potential obstacles.

Good luck in your Survivor Pool.

And, don’t forget, never save a pick.


UPDATE at 6 pm on Sept. 16, 2012: After the first two weeks of the 2012 season, I've added a few more rules:

11. Don't use the same team on multiple entries. I'm actually not a fan of multiple entries in Survivor Pools. If you do it, then you start thinking about the two best locks, instead of just one lock. Now you have to be correct twice each week. I know a lot of people use multiple entries. I'm doing it this year for the first time ever, and only by accident. I nearly picked the New England Patriots on both entries in Week 2. A couple people I know did double-up -- and they got burned. Really glad I didn't make that mistake, or else both entries would be out. If you are going to double-up on multiple entries, only do it late in the season when you're options are thin.

12. Beware of the team "everybody" is picking. Unless you're the Commissioner of your Survivor Pool, you won't know what teams are being picked by everybody else. But if enough of your friends are involved and you're paying attention, you can get a sense of who the majority like. In Week 2, the Patriots were the overwhelming top pick. They're a great team, playing at home, against a poor team, it's not a rivalry game, and there was a big spread. It was the natural selection, unless you were "saving" New England. In a week like this, be cautious. If that overwhelming favorite gets upset, and you took somebody else, you can be in great shape. If you take the same team as the overwhelming majority, and that team wins, it doesn't help you much. In my pool, 163 of the 418 entries (39%) were eliminated by the Patriots.

13. Don't brag about your expertise in making picks. Stay humble. The NFL Survivor Gods don't like it when you act like you have this game figured out. It's the NFL. Strange things happen all the time. Put another way, don't write a blog post pretending like you have all the answers.

Good luck.


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  7. Wow, of all the articles I’ve read on this subject I have to say this is by far the best. I’m in a $400k survivor league with 8 entries and you are able to pick the same team as many times as you want. Luckily I won’t have to worry about saving picks! Thanks a lot for the article, great work.