10/07/2014 12:10PM

Fornatale: It's OK to score zero points


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.”

thomas More than 1 year ago
I think the "middle of the board" type strategy produces more wins in the 3-5 player type games. I have recently migrated to a more "in it to WIN it" strategy which is better suited to larger fields and bigger prizes. I like it better. I know that I'll take my ZERO's now and again, but when I win, I have a chance to win Big.
Jimmy Turano More than 1 year ago
Good luck with your new book. Continued success. As a novice horseplayer, I always find it easier when a big stakes race comes up to play a horse by a top trainer. Like for example this coming saturday in the KNICKERBOCKER Stakes, without reading the DRF, I would play Christopher Clement horses. Anyway be well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Clement is all-time favorite of mine as well. Often if I'm torn between two options in a contest, I'll reach for the connections I feel more simpatico with. PTF
Penguin ymous More than 1 year ago
I have been in your Fantasy Handicapping League since week one. After reading your article, I can only assume that you are playing under a name other than "DRF FORNATALE" as DRF FORNATALE has never submitted a wager and not submitting a wager does not equate to "my poor performance". Also, I can accept the premise of having zeroes because it is a tournament, albeit with entry fees and not my bankroll, but I'm not quite sure why you would be unhappy with your ninth place finish in the tournament that only paid to eighth. If you were ninth, you must have been doing something right and on hindsight, you could review and see where you could have improved a few notches by just slightly altering your picks rather than relying on 20-1 horses to come in. What if you were only 20 cents from eighth place and $3 from the winning end? Would you really be happy with "I’d far prefer to run DFL (dead flippin’ last)." I understand the reasoning, but not the logic. If you were in ninth place going into the last race, I'm sure you would rather be in ninth than have zeroes and yes, after the fact, Zero pays just as good as ninth. Ron Zuercher
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I played as "loomsboldly" in there, didn't realize a default account was set up for me and obviously never put a pick in under that other name. I stand by my statement -- I get no kick out of being "right" or "almost" making the money. If not in the money, I'd rather be last. At least there's no second guessing.
Lounge Lizard More than 1 year ago
In the words of Reese Bobby, " If you A'int first, your last." It's pretty much that simple in tournament handicapping. I too would much rather be DFL, than have a bad beat story to tell any one that would rather not listen. If you don't try to win, you end up betting on Wicked Strong in the Travers rather than his stablemate VE Day that vaults you to the top that day, or worse yet, bet 1-2 on Groupthink last saturday, a non winner of 2 lifetime with 5 seconds now, instead of a $50 winner in Mighty One.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We definitely have similar thoughts on this issue. Tx for reading and taking the time to comment.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
your right it is self serving..i understand the logic of these tournament players who always shoot for the longest shots in the hope of hitting a they sometimes succeed and all it takes is one of these winning and a couple running 2nd..but the wisdom of this strategy gets a little diluted in the big live tournaments when there are 15 races a day over 3 days or even 2 days .especially with lower caps..in the end the idea is to find the winners and defeating short priced favorites and yes taking a few shots at the 20/1 horses.just taking a 20/1 in every race is not handicapping .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've long said that "handicapping tournament" is a bit of a misnomer -- a handicapping contest contest is a game with numbers. And there are many successful strategies you can use to try and win them. Tx for chiming in. PTF
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
PTF---Something I think a lot of players would like in Tournaments, is "All Optional" races. The technology is there, have 4 or 5 tracks available, then I believe the real handicapping will rise to the top-------race
Skeet Boyd More than 1 year ago
I really don't like losing but it really irritates me when pick winners and placers in 6 or 7 races and lose to a guy that got one 20-1