09/30/2014 9:54AM

Fornatale: Shooting for an extreme score

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A few weeks ago, we looked at the affect of tournament field size on overall scores. The conclusion was twofold: The No. 1 factor affecting final scores isn’t field size; it’s the specific run of races in any given contest. And while average scores stay the same regardless of field size, scores at both ends of the spectrum will be more extreme.

Today, we’ll look practically at how a contest player should approach a contest with a large field. Helping with the answer is contest math guru Christopher Larmey. We’ll start with an obvious point: “Your chance of winning a contest with over 1,000 entries is pretty low,” Larmey said. “The average player, by definition, has less than a 1-in-1,000 chance of winning. Even if you are a good player, say twice as likely to win as the average player, your chances are less than 1 in 500.”

This means you are going to need an extremely high score to win. How do we shoot for an extreme score? Larmey suggests three different approaches. Depending on your handicapping strengths and preferences, perhaps one will appeal to you.

Larmey called his first approach “chalking it up.” I love this because it’s so contrarian – it’s the opposite of how many contest players would shoot for an extreme score. Larmey explained: “If you are better at picking winners than finding value, then this might be your best chance.”

If all 12 contest races result in chalky finishes, then the extreme scores are going to belong to players who picked a lot of chalky winners. Since few people will be playing the chalk in every race in a big contest, you have a decent chance of being one of the extreme scorers if you use this approach. But it’s not going to be easy.

“Of course, it is unusual to have 12 consecutive chalky races,” Larmey said. “But occasionally, it does happen, and if it does, you might just win it all simply by playing favorites.”

Of course, this is true in smaller contests as well, but perhaps it becomes more viable when the field sizes are larger because so many players will be drawn to the second approach described by Larmey, “bombing away.” This approach definitely feels more intuitive to many players.

“If your strength is in finding live longshots, then this may be your best chance,” Larmey said. “If three or four bombs win races, then the extreme scores will be the few who selected most or all of those bombs. Your best chance to win in such a scenario is to play a bomb in every race.”

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The most common successful strategy, however, is a hybrid approach between chalking it up and bombing away that allows for further customization by the player. The idea is to hit a bomb early and then revert back to your normal strategy.

“This is probably the approach closest to what most players use,” Larmey said. “This makes sense because if you do hit an early bomb, especially if it is in a wide-open race with a big field, then there is a good chance that less than 20 percent of the other players had it. That means that you have now distanced yourself from over 80 percent of the rest of the field and have put yourself into what is essentially a contest within a contest with a few hundred other lucky players.”

From there, you approach this inner contest just as you would any other contest – you’ve already separated yourself, so you can focus on outfinishing the others who hit the big bomb.

Incidentally, when either of these two latter strategies does not work, they may well lead to a player finishing with zero. And this helps explain why so many excellent players often finish a contest with no points. That’s a topic we will tackle in a future column.

Charley More than 1 year ago
Bottom line is stay out of contests with large entry's unless it's free.
Mayhemily1 More than 1 year ago
Great article Pete, Thanks for sharing your experience Chris, very helpful. Emily
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tx Emily! Always great to see you here. Really enjoyed your work on the Derby Wars vidcast as well. PTF
derby1592 More than 1 year ago
Thanks Emily and back at Ya! Chris
Dan Camoro More than 1 year ago
Upon further consideration...I think we, as contest players, need a League? It could be structured pretty much like baseball, but have the four leagues differentiated from one another by cost to play. Have an individual prize that would greatly vary by league, but bring the 4 of 5 leagues together for a playoff and championship. Impose strict rules so that anyone trying to play in different leagues is banned for life. Skim the same amount of money from each league to fund the championship. Make it a level playing field by using a one time fee to enter, set up a schedule, and bingo, it sells out in no time flat.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's a very interesting idea, Dan, to make it more like a fantasy football or baseball league in that way. I do think it would help circumnavigate some of these issues. Tx for your thoughtful comment. PTF
Dan Camoro More than 1 year ago
What would be really interesting is having contest player stats including the number of entries purchased, money won, top 10 finishes, stuff like that. The NHC has the Leaderboard, but it doesn't get too deep regarding all the fine details. From my perspective, I see many people out there forking up over 50K a year to play contests. What would make things real interesting, on the contest circuit, is to have a spending cap. Never happen, but would be interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
More data would definitely be a good thing. If I had more time, I'd try to create some kind of contest wiki, where we could see more stats about this stuff, kind of like the Hendon mob for poker, There is some excellent info on the NTRA site if you look at the Tour standings. As for a spending cap, what? Are you trying to put me out of a job? ;) I think it's great that contests provide an opportunity and experience where some players are willing to spend the big bucks. I think it would hurt the growth in our corner of the sport to limit that. I like your comments, keep em coming!
derby1592 More than 1 year ago
I like the idea of trying to develop a rating system for contest players that would be continuous throughout their playing career and would let them see how much they improve over time from year to year. I have given this some thought in the past. It would be tedious to do but relatively straight-forward if players were only allowed 1 entry per contest (I am not advocating this but just making a point). However, with multiple entries, it becomes very tricky, if not impossible to objectively and systematically rate the performance of a player in a particular contest. Do you use only the highest scoring entry? - probably overrates the performance. Do you rate each entry separately and then treat them the same way you would treat 2 single entries in 2 different contests? - that would probably underrate performance since a first place finish and a last place finish is probably not that same as 2 mid-pack finishes in terms of rating the performance. These are probably the only 2 practical ways to do it and I really don't like either one. I will continue to noodle on this because I think it would be very cool and would make the NHC tour even more appealing and fun for players. Cheers Chris
Michael Mainzer More than 1 year ago
Pete, I believe the bigger problem with playing contests with large fields is that even if only a small % pick the longshot the number of players who do are much higher. In a contest with 1000 participants if 5% pick the longshot it is 50 people versus only 10 people in a 200 person contest. That makes it much harder to come back with so many people to pass mpm101
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Definitely. That idea is one of the underpinnings of my previous article on the subject as to why scores are as high at the extremes in these circumstances. Tx for commenting. PTF
Dan Cronin More than 1 year ago
The 3rd way is why having 3 and 4 entries is so UNFAIR, they take the 4 entries and take 4 horses out of the 10 in the race and hope they hit 10-1 or so , they do this in first 3 races, if they hit 1 longshot that ticket is now in front or close to front and you can play normal handicapping the rest of the way while taking the other 3 entries and playing bomb after bomb. This is unfair and not handicapping. Once the NHC stops this and says 1 entry only, then and only then will it be a fair tournament. The chances of winning against 325 players without the max entries is really tough
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tough call though because if you disallow multiple entries, people will get them anyway through entries in other people's names, causing an even more unfair situation in my opinion. PTF
mikey More than 1 year ago
Just go to the NTRA or any other major contest and you see what they call beards.Pete has talked about this many times.No way to stop it or slow it down.You can have many spots,only pick and pray cuts down the edge.This way you are locked in to your picks.That's true handicapping and not a dart board.Spend all night or morning handicapping put your picks in and see who is the best.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tx for acknowledging that Mikey. My only issue w what we're calling the ALL-IN format is that, for me, picking while accounting for actual odds is such a big part of the process that without it, to me, you've left something important behind. But I totally get why you and many other players prefer to get all the picks in beforehand. There really is no perfect system. But thankfully there are enough different contest types out there that just about every contest player should be able to find one to suit his or her personal style. PTF
mikey More than 1 year ago
Pete Chris is the real deal.Only a matter of time that he wins the NTRA.He is as sharp as they come,not to mention a real nice guy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yes, I'm grateful Chris has been so generous with his time and insights on the blog. One of the top ten contest players in the USA today to be sure. . .
derby1592 More than 1 year ago
Thanks for the but there are a lot of great players. Also, thanks to Pete and others, many more players are getting better all the time. Cheers Chris
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tx for saying that, Chris. I am always so gratified when I hear people say that my book and columns helped them discover and succeed in the contest world.