How Pool Size Impacts Optimal Pick Strategy In Football Pick’em Pools

Pool size can have a big impact on how you should make picks, and can also affect things like your likelihood of winning.

Pool Size

Size matters in pool contests and on the line of scrimmage (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

One of the biggest factors to consider in any pool is how many other entries you have to beat to win a prize. Pool size impacts all of the following:

  • Your expected win rate and prize money expectation;
  • The amount of risk you want to take and how conservatively or aggressively you approach making picks;
  • How reliable public pick popularity data is in estimating how your fellow pool entrants will pick games.

Expected Win Rates and Pool Size

The more entries you have to beat, the harder it is to win a prize. That shouldn’t be a profound observation. But it is important to visualize just what it means.

In a yearly pool with 10 total entries, if you have no advantage over your opponents, you should expect to win first place once every decade. By the time you get to 50 entries, you might expect to win once in your lifetime (assuming you don’t start playing sports pools at the playground). Get into pools with more than 100 entries, and your chances of finishing in 1st place are just 1%.

Those are season prize expectations. The impact on weekly prize rates is even more dramatic. If you are in a 10-entry pool, what is the expectation that you should win at least one weekly prize in a season?

It’s 83%. With 17 weeks and just 10 entries, most of the entrants should win at least once. But those expectations change dramatically as the number of entries increases.

Pool SizeChances of Winning at Least One Week
10 entries83%
25 entries50%
50 entries29%
100 entries16%
500 entries3%

Small Pool Strategy

In a tiny pick’em pool, in which you only need to beat a small number of opponents, taking even moderate risks with upset picks can be too aggressive of a strategy, and will likely decrease your odds to win the pool.

Picking all favorites or “chalk” may look wimpy and draw the mockery of your pool opponents, but in some cases it absolutely makes the most sense. Your opponents will likely be far riskier than they need to be, and with fewer opponents, the odds of one hitting the right lucky streak is lowered.

Even in weekly prize situations, smaller pools will take on less risk. A weekly prize strategy in a small pool might focus on slight underdogs who are unpopular, but otherwise more closely resemble a season long strategy.

Mid-Size Pool Strategy

In mid-sized pools, you do have more entries to beat, so the number of risks might have to increase. But usually, the better strategy is to let a number of other entries fall by the wayside, and evaluate the risk later in the year, as outlined in our article on Endgame Strategy.

In weekly prize pools, though, the optimal selections can look more risky. You should have a few more upset picks based on value. In confidence pools, value starts to not only drive who is selected, but how many points or assigned. Picking value favorites, and even a value gamble occasionally, with the top point value picks could be the best strategy in a given week.

Large Pool Strategy

In the largest pools, with lower chances of winning, there is a higher likelihood that one of your opponents will get off to a hot start. There are just more of them to catch the right combination of results. That said, in season prize pools, the first half of the season can still be about putting yourself in position, and letting a large chunk of the pool fall behind.

Then, you can adapt your risk-taking in the second half of the season once the picture on what it takes to win clears up.

In weekly prize pools, the optimal strategies can look quite risky. More than a quarter of your picks might be upsets, including some that are larger underdogs who are very unpopular.

In confidence pools, the majority of your top point games could be driven by value (pick popularity compared to win odds) rather than just by ranking the best win odds options.

In these large pools, you need your specific key upsets and toss-up games to happen at a high rate to win. Thus, also risking more points on those outcomes provides you with better odds of winning the weekly prize, compared to a situation where you put a single point on the outcome, the upset happens, and you barely get more points than those that picked the favorite.

Pool Size and Pick Popularity

Finally, pool size can affect the impact of pick popularity data. First, the smaller the pool size, the less likely the public pick popularity data will reflect the picks made in a particular pool. In smaller pools, there will just be more variation in picks. You might see more upsets being picked by the majority of the pool, but also plenty of other games where no one has picked a particular underdog.

As pool size increases, your pool should tend to more closely reflect public pick popularity, unless there are specific biases (such as the pool being made up of all Chicago Bears fans) that would impact pick rate.

Also, though, the pool size dictates how important using pick popularity data is.

In a smaller pool with a season prize goal, the pick popularity may not be as reliable in projecting your pool’s behavior, but it’s also relatively less important. As we discussed above, win odds, and conservatively picking the correct team, is the primary consideration.

With larger pools, though, you need to differentiate your picks from the crowd. When doing that, it’s important to try to make picks that are good values (i.e. where the reward for your risk is higher). Good public pick popularity data, then, helps you make decisions that improve your chances of winning the pool, by enabling you to find the relatively better value picks when differentiating your entry from the crowd.