09/30/2014 10:54AM

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.