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Survivor Pool Strategy: How To Make NFL Survivor Picks That Maximize Your Edge (2020)

by TeamRankings
Aug 30, 2020

NFL survivor pools have gained massive popularity in recent years. Once just a small niche of the football office pool world, survivor pools now attract millions of players every NFL season, some of whom play for seriously high stakes.

Given that a single incorrect pick eliminates you from most NFL survivor pools, many people believe that winning a survivor pool is all about luck. That’s false. Good luck always helps, but it’s not what the sharpest survivor players rely on to win pools far more often than expected.

In this post, now updated for 2020, we explain proven strategies that will give you a big edge to win NFL survivor pools. These strategies are based on objective math, millions of computer simulations, and most importantly, the results of thousands of real-world pools.

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How do we know these strategies work? Every NFL season, our customers put our survivor pick recommendations to the test in their pools. Over the past three seasons, our subscribers have reported nearly $2.5 million in survivor pool winnings.

That level of success isn’t simply the result of luck, and it would not be possible without applying the concepts explained below.

NFL Survivor Pools Defined

Before we begin, let’s explain exactly what we mean by an NFL survivor pool, also sometimes known as an eliminator pool, knockout pool, suicide pool, or last man standing pool. (Can we just agree on a name please?)

In survivor pools, you play against other people — not against a “house” like in traditional sports betting. You can challenge your friends or coworkers in a private pool, or you can compete in a public contest sponsored by popular sites like ESPN, Yahoo!, or DraftKings.

In the most basic format of NFL survivor pool, you have to pick one NFL team each week. If your team loses, you are knocked out of the pool. If your team wins, you survive to the next week to pick again.

This cycle continues until only one player, the winner of the pool, is still alive.

This format means that the specific NFL week in which a survivor pool ends can vary significantly from year to year and pool to pool. The ending week primarily depends on the size of the survivor pool, as well as the number and timing of big upsets in a particular NFL season.

The Rule That Changes Everything

The big twist, in most survivor pools at least, is that you can only pick a specific team once per season. Pick Kansas City over Houston in Week 1 of 2020, for example, and you won’t be able to pick the mighty Chiefs again. 

That one constraint transforms survivor pool strategy into a complex and scary beast. Because you can’t just pick the Chiefs every week, you face tough decisions regarding when to “burn” top teams. Should you pick the team with the best odds to win, or should you intentionally put yourself at greater risk to lose now, in order to save that team to use later?

In addition, simply surviving until some arbitrary week (Week 7, Week 10, etc.) does not guarantee you a prize in an NFL survivor pool. You need to outlast all your opponents to win the pool, and in smaller pools especially, it’s not easy to predict how long you will need to survive in order to achieve that goal.

If you burn all your good teams early, you will find yourself in a precarious position if your pool lasts deep into the second half of the NFL season. On the other hand, saving all the best teams increases the risk that you get eliminated before you even have a chance to use them.

Safety Is Relative

Outlasting every single one of your opponents in an NFL survivor contest is a lot harder than most people think. Let’s look at the numbers.

According to data from SurvivorGrid.com, over the last decade, 0.53% of survivor pool entries nationwide made it through Week 17 alive. There are significant swings from season to season, but that’s the long-term average full season survival rate.

That means that if your NFL survivor pool has around 175 to 200 entries or more, you should expect to have to survive the entire season (aka, make 17 correct picks in a row) to win it. That’s incredibly difficult.

Even if your pool is smaller than 175 entries, getting multiple late season picks correct will probably be required to win.

So to play in survivor pools like a pro, you first need to dispel one very dangerous myth from your mind. Trying to maximize your odds to survive the opening weeks of the NFL season, by picking all the safest (and usually most popular) teams in the early going, tends to be a popular approach — but it is rarely a good strategy to win a survivor pool.

The Flawed Logic Of “Just Get To Mid-Season”

Take a minute to think about the two potential outcomes of the strategy just mentioned:

  • Outcome 1: There’s a big upset in the early weeks of the season and one of your supposedly “safe” picks actually loses. You’re eliminated from the pool.
  • Outcome 2: You get your first bunch of picks correct and survive the early weeks of the season. So do the vast majority of your opponents, most of whom were also taking those same less risky and popular picks.

Outcome 1 is clearly bad, but Outcome 2 isn’t cause for a big celebration either. In fact, Outcome 2 typically provides only the illusion of success. Although it delivers the satisfaction of knowing that you’re still alive in your survivor pool, your odds to win the pool likely haven’t improved much at all. After all, most of your opponents are still alive too.

Not to mention that by burning more good teams early, you’d then be at a disadvantage to any other player who also survived the early season without using so many top teams.

No Pick Is Truly “Safe”

Another thing to keep in mind is that in survivor pools, there is no such thing as a truly “safe” pick. No team is a lock in today’s NFL.

Consider that historically, 10-point favorites in the NFL have won about 85% of the time — obviously a high rate of success, but far from 100%. Double digit favorites in the NFL are also rare. In most weeks, especially as the season goes on and your quiver of available teams to pick shrinks, you will need to pick smaller favorites than that.

However, just for the sake of example, let’s assume you can pick a 10-point favorite every single week without picking the same team twice. From a probability standpoint, you would have:

  • 85% odds to survive Week 1
  • 72% odds to survive Week 2
  • 61% odds to survive Week 3
  • 52% odds to survive Week 4
  • 44% odds to survive Week 5

On average, even if you could pick a 10-point favorite every week, you are still not expected to survive past Week 5 in an NFL survivor pool. (Eye-opening, but true. Those people that say they “always” get to at least Week 8 or Week 10 in survivor pools are most likely practicing selective amnesia.) In short, thinking that you are not already taking substantial risks by picking the safest team every week is a fallacy.

In addition, the difference in relative safety between the biggest favorite of a given week and other larger favorites often isn’t as large as people think. In many cases, you only take on a modest amount of additional elimination risk by avoiding the biggest favorite.

The Holy Trinity Of Survivor Pick Strategy Data

If picking the safest (and likely most popular) team every week is usually not a good strategy, how do you figure out the picks that will maximize your odds to win a survivor pool? 

The short answer is that you need to apply concepts of game theory. By definition, winning a survivor pool requires you to get at least one weekly pick right while all of your still-surviving opponents get their picks wrong. Consequently, you need to evaluate your survivor pick decisions based on how you expect your opponents to act — both in the current week and in future weeks.

To do this level of pick optimization, you must consider the Holy Trinity of Survivor Pick Strategy Data:

  • Win Odds
  • Pick Popularity
  • Future Value

1. Win Odds

Team win odds are the most basic element of survivor pick strategy. You do need to survive in order to win, and the riskier pick you make in a given week, the higher the chance you get eliminated. All else being equal, higher win odds are better.

So it’s paramount to understand that Philadelphia (an 8-point favorite at post time) has about a 75% chance to beat Washington in Week 1 2020, while the LA Rams (a 3-point favorite) only have about a 60% chance to beat Carolina.

At TeamRankings, we use a combination of betting market odds and data-driven predictive models to calculate objective win odds for every NFL team.

2. Pick Popularity

Many survivor pool players do not fully appreciate the impact of pick popularity on their odds to win a pool. If you need to outlast every other player to win, at some point you have to stop following the crowd.

As a result, identifying prime opportunities to pick against the masses is critical to maximizing your edge in NFL survivor pools. In short, it’s often beneficial to sacrifice a few percentage points of safety to pick a team that is very unpopular.

(Our NFL Survivor Picks product gathers data from multiple nationwide survivor pool sites to estimate pick popularity each week.)

For example, if you think half of your pool is going to pick Seattle in Week 1, then it would almost certainly be unwise to pick the Seahawks. As of post time, Seattle had about 80% win odds over Cincinnati, but four other teams in Week 1 had win odds of 72% or greater. These other teams are certainly riskier than Seattle, but not by a huge amount.

In that case, taking some extra risk to avoid Seattle would almost certainly increase your odds to win the pool. Most importantly, it sets up a situation where half your pool could get eliminated if Seattle gets upset while you survive. Yet you’re still picking a team that’s almost as likely to win as Seattle.

To explain this important concept further, let’s discuss current week expected value, a metric that combines both win odds and pick popularity.

Current Week Expected Value

Applied to survivor pools, the term “expected value” (also referred to as “EV”) is effectively an averaging of all the possible outcomes that could happen if you make a particular survivor pick.

Instead of only considering the risks of making a particular pick (i.e. your pick’s win odds and the chance that you survive vs. get eliminated), EV also factors in the possible rewards (e.g. scenarios where your pick wins but other picks lose).

Here’s a simplified example of how it works.

The Simplified 2020 Survivor Pool

Let’s say you enter a single week survivor pool during 2020 NFL Week 1 with 9 other people. With a $100 entry fee, the total prize pool is $1,000.

That pot will be split equally among any players who survive Week 1. If no entry survives, you will play again the next week.

However, this pool has a curious rule in that you can only pick a team from one specific Week 1 game: New York Jets at Buffalo Bills. Betting odds favor the Bills by six points, and historically teams favored by six win about 70% of the time.

Should you pick the Bills or the Jets in this 10-entry survivor pool?

Comparing Expected Values

If you’re a smart survivor player, you know that the immediate answer is, “It depends.” Then, you would try to project how your opponents will act.

The table below shows the expected value of different scenarios, based on the total number of your opponents that end up picking the Bills and the Jets. (Since it’s extremely unlikely that the majority of players will pick the underdog Jets, we didn’t list out all the potential scenarios.)

Again, “EV” stands for Expected Value, which in this case is the expected payout from the $1,000 prize pool in each scenario.

Bills Picks Jets Picks EV (Pick Bills) EV (Pick Jets) Higher EV Pick
9 0 $100 $300 Jets 
8 1 $78 $150 Jets 
7 2 $88 $100 Jets 
6 3 $100 $75 Bills 
5 4 $117 $60 Bills

 

The verdict: If your goal is to maximize your expected profits from this survivor pool, you must at least consider picking the Jets — the team that is expected to lose!

It may sound counterintuitive, but the numbers don’t lie. If you are confident that two or fewer of your nine opponents will pick the Jets, going contrarian offers a higher expected return on your pool entry fee.

The Psychological Challenge Of Optimal Survivor Pick Strategy

Taking risks like picking the Jets to beat the Bills in the example above takes guts, even if the numbers justify it. Pursuing an EV-maximization strategy in survivor pools also takes patience and thick skin.

Human nature is such that many people prefer a greater chance for immediate gratification, even if that mindset works to their disadvantage in the long term. These are the types of people who would choose a solid 50% chance to win $10 (which has a $5 EV, since .50 x $10 = $5) over a longshot 10% chance to win $100 (a $10 EV, since .10 x $100 = $10) — even though the second proposition has twice the expected value.

If you have the wherewithal to stick with proven strategies, playing against these people in survivor pools is an effective way to transfer wealth from them to you over the long term.

However, it will also typically increase your risk of getting eliminated early in any particular year, thus resulting in more mockery for not making the “obvious” pick. (Again, that fallacy of thinking that a totally safe alternative existed, when it didn’t.)

Waiting To Take A Calculated Risk Can Really Hurt

Perhaps the biggest problem with not having expected value drive your survivor picks, even in the earliest weeks of a pool, is that you could miss the best opportunity of the entire season to boost your pool win odds.

In Week 3 of 2018, for instance, making a calculated gamble to avoid overwhelmingly popular Minnesota helped a lot of people, including many of our subscribers, win survivor pools. Minnesota’s upset loss as a 17-point favorite against Buffalo eliminated almost 60% of still-alive entries in survivor pools nationwide.

In terms of the percentage of still-alive entries eliminated, the next biggest single-game elimination event of 2018 didn’t happen until Week 14, when Oakland upset Pittsburgh. Even that result only eliminated about 25% of still-alive survivor entries nationwide, and by then most pools were over.

Taking an EV-driven risk to avoid Minnesota in Week 3 ended up being the most important survivor pick decision you could make in 2018.

3. Future Value

Our simplified Bills vs. Jets pool above only lasted for one week, but most survivor pools last until a winner is crowned. That brings us to the concept of future value, the final component of the Holy Trinity of Survivor Pick Strategy Data.

The concept of future value in survivor pools is straightforward in theory. When you decide to use one of the best teams in the NFL as your weekly pick, you typically increase your odds to survive the week (good), but you no longer have that team available to use in the future (bad).

However, coming up with a precise calculation of the value of saving a team for later use gets quite complicated, because future value isn’t determined solely by team quality. You also need to consider how often that team is likely to be a compelling survivor pick in future weeks, and sometimes the result of that analysis may surprise you.

Week By Week Win Odds Dynamics

Even elite teams will have some tough future matchups (e.g. playing on the road against another good team) where their win odds simply won’t be high enough to make them an attractive survivor pick.

This dynamic can lead survivor players to assume that a good team has more future value than it actually does, especially when there aren’t a lot of weeks left in the season.

At the same time, determining future value requires you to evaluate the relative safety of all potential pick options in every single future week. In some future weeks, there may be only two or three teams that project to be solidly favored, and you’ll put yourself at significant risk if you burn all those teams in earlier weeks.

Even mediocre teams can have high future value, if they happen to be hosting a bottom-dweller during a future week or two when the better teams in the NFL all happen to have tough games.

Future Pick Popularity

Evaluating a team’s future value requires even further analysis, though. As we’ve hopefully hammered home by now, maximizing your expected profit from survivor pools requires more than just identifying the most likely teams to win.

You also need to forecast how popular of a pick you expect each team to be in every future week, so you can calculate expected values. This process requires projecting how many of your opponents will have already used each particular NFL team as a pick by each future week of the season, and that’s not a trivial undertaking. (We eventually built software to do it more precisely.)

However, if you really want to maximize your edge, there is no alternative. One of the worst scenarios in survivor pools is when you:

  • Take extra risk early on to save a good team for a particular future week.
  • End up surviving until that particular week. (Yay!)
  • Only for the team you saved to be a such a popular pick that it’s a higher EV decision not to pick them. (Ugh!)

Factoring In Pool Size

We’re still not done. A team’s future value is also dependent on the total number of entries still alive in your pool, and consequently, how much longer your pool is expected to last.

For example, San Francisco may end up being the biggest favorite in Week 14 of 2020, when they host the Washington Football Team. However, if you’re in a 10-person NFL survivor pool, your pool probably will end before Week 14.

So it doesn’t make sense to assign San Francisco as much future value in a very small pool as you would give them if your pool had, say, 500 entries, and was therefore likely to require 17 weeks of correct picks to win.

Wrapping It Up

NFL survivor pools are wild and fun contests. Given the rush of anxiety and adrenaline they provide on a weekly basis (e.g. that big knot in your stomach when your pick is down by 3 late in the fourth quarter), it’s no surprise how popular these pools have become.

From a strategy perspective, survivor pools are also incredibly complex and fascinating games. Figuring out your optimal pick strategy from week to week takes a lot of data and a lot of math, and there’s no simple formula for doing it.

That fact creates a wide skill gap between sharp players and recreational players, and opens up the opportunity to make attractive long-term profits from playing in NFL survivor pools.

(We haven’t even touched on the option to play multiple entries in a survivor pool, or across several survivor pools, to diversify your risk and increase your odds to win a prize in a particular year. That option introduces even more pick optimization complexity, as do rule variations like having to make two picks per week late in the season.)

The goal of this post was to explain some of the foundational strategies that will increase your odds to win NFL survivor pools. If you only take away one lesson, it should be that the safest pick of the week might well be the pick that gives you the best chance to win your pool, but often it’s not.

If you take the time to project expected pick popularity, put together at least a rough method for estimating the future value of teams, and make smart pick decisions based on those two factors as well as how likely a team is to win, you will start to increase your odds to take home a survivor pool prize.

The TeamRankings Solution

As geeky engineer types, we turned to technology to figure out the weekly NFL survivor picks that maximize your chance to win any type of pool.

First, we developed automated ways to gather all the data needed to implement an optimal survivor pick strategy. Then, we designed algorithms to customize weekly survivor pick recommendations based on key strategy factors such as your pool’s rules and total number of entries.

We bundled all of this goodness into a premium product that we call NFL Survivor Picks

Among other things, NFL Survivor Picks:

  • Aggregates betting market odds and objective game predictions.
  • Compiles national pick popularity data.
  • Projects both current week and future week pick popularity.
  • Calculates current week expected value and future value for all teams.
  • Customizes picks and data based on key factors like your pool’s rules and number of entries.
  • Takes into account the specific teams you’ve already picked.
  • Calculates the current “optimal path” of picks through the rest of the season.
  • Offers a configurable EV calculator tool based on your own pick popularity estimates
  • Supports coordinated pick optimization for up to 30 different survivor pool entries.
  • Optimizes picks for multiple entries either in a single pool or across multiple pools.
  • Updates multiple times per day with the latest data.

Most importantly, the product works. Over the last three NFL seasons, an average of 31% of our subscribers have reported winning a prize in an NFL survivor pool, taking home over three times the prize money an average player in their pools would have been expected to win.

Winning an NFL survivor pool in any particular year will always require some luck. Even if you’re the most skilled player in your pool, you’re going to lose many more survivor pools than you win. That’s just the reality of competing against lots of people.

In the long term, though, NFL survivor pools can offer fantastic profit opportunities for skilled players with the patience to stick to smart, data-driven strategies. Our NFL Survivor Picks product provides the data and analysis you need to exploit those opportunities — and to have your opponents wondering what your secret sauce is.

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