10/07/2014 12:10PM

Fornatale: It's OK to score zero points

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If you’ve been following my poor performance in my Breeders’ Cup Fantasy Capping league, perhaps you’ll think that the timing of this article is a little self-serving. I have spanned the season of BC preps without a single winner to my name in this contest.

But self-serving or not, this is an important lesson for all contest players to learn: It’s OK to finish with zero. One of the biggest mistakes players make in their first contests is to worry about “not embarrassing themselves.” It’s a natural instinct to not want to be at the bottom of the leaderboard, and there’s a sense of safety about ending up somewhere in the middle of the pack. But this instinct will hurt you in the long run.

Winning contest players shed their egos when it comes to their final scores. Last year, in an online contest, I had an incredibly frustrating experience, the worst thing that can happen in a tournament.  Did I zero out?  No, that would have been fine. I ran ninth in a tournament that paid down to eighth. I’d far prefer to run DFL (dead flippin’ last).

Contests are their own little ecosystems, where the very nature of value is changed. In your daily play, if you end up with a $2.01 return on investment, you should be happy. But in a contest, that’s not going to be good enough. In fact, such a result, regardless of what it might mean in the real world, pretty much guarantees that you’re a loser. In a contest, if you can’t finish in the money, you might as well be at the bottom.

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Ricky Zimmer, aka “The Quiet Assassin,” shared his insights on this matter. “Early on in my contest play, I was more concerned about being on the board than being at the top of the board,” Zimmer said. “And my play early on was a little bit passive, and that hurt me.  If I could go back and give my younger self advice, I’d say, ‘Just go for it; always go for it.’ ”

The tendency new players have to middle along reminds me of overused one-run strategies that overly conservative baseball managers use: A lot of times, if you play for one run, then that’s all you get. In contests, if you’re too worried about not finishing last, it’s going to be very difficult to finish first. Follow Zimmer’s advice, and stick your neck out there.

Ken Massa, HTR handicapping software founder and an experienced tournament player, described the transition that most successful players make. “Experienced tournament players, we’re not worried about the humility of getting a zero,” Massa said. “That doesn’t bother us at all anymore. It’s probably because we’ve been shooting at 20-1 shots, and none of them came in. If all the chalks win, it’s simple: We get zero.”

Many players are a lot more willing to mix in some favorites than Massa is, but the point remains the same. If you’re a player who is reluctant to see a zero next to your name, you basically have two choices when it comes to tournaments: skip them altogether or get over your fear.

Maury Wolff, who was a force in the early days of tournaments, takes this idea a step further. “In the early days of playing contests, you could often tell how good the field was by looking at the leaderboard at the end of the day and seeing how many players finished with zero,” Wolff said. “The more zeros, the better the field. At least they were playing the right way.”