Lesson 3: Chalk Plays in DFS - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
As an industry, we like to divide DFS players into two groups: Those that play the chalk (popular plays) and those that are more contrarian. The common thought is that it’s best to use the chalk in cash games and to be contrarian in tournaments. However, that line is a little more blurred than most people realize. If you pull up any winning tournament lineup, you will likely see a number of players who are highly owned. Likewise, if you are hoping to have a great night in head-to-head contests, you will likely need a contrarian player if you are hoping for a sweep.
There are a lot of misconceptions about chalk, both good and bad. Let’s quickly squash some of the myths.
“You can’t fade a chalky player in cash games.”
If you don’t like a player in a slate, you should not roster him. There are too many DFS players who try to hedge in cash games by taking the highly owned players just because they want the hedge on the field. They are worried about missing out on that player if he ends up having a big game. As Young Jeezy once said, “Scared money don’t make no money.” While I’m not sure he was talking about DFS, it still applies.
You should always play the lineup that you feel most confident in. Remember in the last lesson when we said that suboptimal lineup construction could lead to certain players being chalky when they otherwise shouldn’t be? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a bad shooting guard or power forward play end up being the chalk because everyone followed the same lineup construction path. Meanwhile, I’m over here feeling great about my entire lineup and feeling even better that a bad play ended up being so highly owned. Even though our goal isn’t to finish in the top one percent of the field in cash games, we don’t always have to follow the herd. There are often leverage opportunities against the field, even in double-ups and 50/50s.
“You are a chalk donkey if you target the highly owned players.”
Tournament players love to shed a negative light on DFS players who like to play the chalk. I truly don’t understand it. More times than not, a player becomes chalky because he is the best play at his respective position and price point. This isn’t always the case (see the paragraph right above this one), but for the most part, plays become chalky because they are good plays.
There is nothing wrong with playing the chalk; you just have to know what type of league you are in and adjust accordingly. If you are playing cash games, you shouldn’t worry about ownership. You should construct the best lineup possible. In tournaments, it’s quite different. You can still play the chalk, but in order to finish in the top one percent of a contest, you need to separate yourself from the pack by using contrarian plays or by creating a unique roster construction, which we will cover in an upcoming lesson.
“You can’t target a player that is over ____% owned in tournaments.”
If LeBron James sits a game out and Kevin Love is projected to be 35% owned, some people refuse to play him. They set a random ownership number that they won’t target players at. To me, this is ludicrous. If Love finishes the game with 30 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists, you better have him in your lineup if you are to have any shot of cashing. People get so wrapped up in these rules that they set for themselves that they start making –EV (expected value) plays. Ownership is important, but it’s not the death knell for a player.
I don’t pretend to know everything when it comes to game theory in DFS, but I’ve been successful at this for a very long time. My game continues to evolve, as should yours. The way I look at ownership in tournaments is pretty simple. Take the ownership projection and instead look at it as a value proposition. Let’s take the Kevin Love example at a projected ownership of 35%. If I think that there is greater than a 35% chance Love reaches value in that scenario, then I should play him. I don’t have some magic mathematical equation that I use; it’s just a simple value proposition. With LeBron James out, Love is going to take on a much bigger role in the offense and he’ll likely grab a few more rebounds. Meanwhile, Love’s salary is not going to reflect the role change, which gives him a great shot of reaching value. I’ll gladly be overweight on a chalky player in situations like this one.
Now that we’ve squashed some of the myths around chalk plays in DFS, the question is when should you play the chalk and when should you fade it? To make it more specific to NBA, I’ll give a few different examples. The higher the expected value multiplier that I have for a player, the less likely I am to fade him. For instance, let’s say a starting point guard is ruled out and the team only has one capable backup. We expect that backup to play 35-40 minutes and we expect him to be the primary ball-handler in his offense. We see that his salary across the industry is way too cheap for a starting point guard. If I expect him to reach 8x or more, I will gladly have 100% exposure to him. Even if he’s 50% owned in tournaments, if he reaches 8x or more you will need him in your lineup to cash.
The same goes for the Kevin Love example above. When a star player is ruled out and we can expect a massive role change for one or more of his teammates, this isn’t a situation where I want to get cute and fade him. When we expect increased usage and/or increased playing time, we should target these players regardless of their ownership.
My two favorite opportunities to fade the chalk are when a bad player ends up being the chalk due to lineup construction (we talked about this above) and when a player becomes extremely chalky without an expected increase in usage or playing time. For instance, let’s say that Kevin Durant has a dream matchup and that there is enough value in the slate to easily fit him into your lineups. Everyone is going to gravitate toward Durant. He might be a great play, but if there is a viable pivot at a similar price point, I’ll gladly take my chances with a lower owned player in tournaments. Let’s say that Kawhi Leonard is expected to be 10% owned in a slightly more difficult matchup, while Durant is expected to be 40% owned. Even though he’s in a better spot, do we really think Durant is four times as likely to have a better game than Leonard?
Say it with me: of course not. These two are basically equal when it comes to fantasy production over the course of the season, so should a better matchup lead to 4x the ownership? I’m all about the pivots when it comes to players who are only chalky thanks to a matchup. This is the NBA. There are blowouts, injuries, poor shooting performances, etc., every single night of the season.
The takeaway from this lesson is that chalk isn’t inherently good or bad. You can play the chalk and you can fade the chalk. You just have to be able to identify good chalk from bad chalk.