Strategic Insights: Cash Game Concepts




If you're like most DFS players, you've tried contests of various sizes and payouts structures. Perhaps you've even noticed that different strategies work well for different contest types. This article will explore strategic considerations for cash games, and how you should approach these games differently from other contests.


For this article, I will define a cash game as any Double Up, 50/50, or Head to Head contest. In other words, these are contests that pay about half the field and pay all winners about twice the buy-in. Double Ups pay exactly twice the buy-in to almost half the field, while 50/50s and Head to Heads pay almost twice the buy-in to exactly half the field. These structures result in generally similar outcomes for players, but also have some important differences that we'll examine. This article will not address 3-Players, Triple Ups, Boosters, or any other contests that do not fit the payout structure described above, because those contests involve very different strategic considerations.


Cash Games as an Investment Core


A common DFS misconception is that cash games are an essential bankroll builder that should comprise the majority of a DFS player's investments. I know from experience that this isn't necessarily the case. I've made a reliable profit this year by investing about 99% of my entry fees in GPPs and 1% in cash games. This distribution won't be the best approach for everyone. However, I have enough contests on record to demonstrate that I can expect a higher ROI in GPPs than in cash games, and that I can manage risk sufficiently in GPPs to make a steady profit. Moreover, I'm confident that the highest achievable long-run ROIs are far lower for the best cash game players than for the best GPP players.


Where did the habit of relying on cash games as a core investment come from? My best guess is that many players have drawn false conclusions from observations of their cash games and GPP outcomes. In particular, I believe the frequency of cash game wins lead many players to believe that cash games are either safer or easier than GPPs. While it's true that cash game results converge to expectations much more quickly than GPPs, it can still be very difficult to make a profit in cash games. Good and bad cash game players will likely run close enough to break-even to believe they can win going forward, while good and bad GPP players can go through nasty downswings that wreck their confidence.


Despite the relative comfort of cash games, a player should carefully consider whether it makes sense to play them. A player is much less likely to experience large bankroll swings if his weekly investment includes $90 spread through several Head to Head Matches and $10 in GPPs, when compared to a $100 investment in GPPs only. Variance reduction sounds great, but what is the $90 in cash game investments actually accomplishing, aside from making your $10 GPP investment seem insignificant?


Take a moment to review your cash game results. If you've played at least several hundred cash games, chances are that you're not far from break-even. If you've lost money, don't be ashamed; it's very hard just to beat the rake in cash games. With that said, keep your results in mind and consider if this is actually something you should be focusing your investments on. If you're a losing cash game player, you'd save money by flipping coins with friends for $90 worth of bets per week instead of putting that money into cash games. Alternatively, you can just keep that $90 in your pocket. The bottom line is that any DFS investment you make should be for some combination of profitability and recreation, depending on your goals. You should not be playing certain contests simply because others in the community recommend them.


The Trade-Off Between Expectation and Floor


Perhaps the most common strategic recommendation for cash games is to select players with high floors. High floor is a term used to describe a situation where a player seems unlikely to have a poor game. Sometimes this advice is redundant with the much more sensible approach of simply choosing good players. For instance, Antonio Brown will be perceived to have the highest floor of all wide receivers many weeks, but this is a trivial observation because we expect him to be the best option in general at wide receiver many weeks. The “high floor” advice only has an impact when expectation and floor are not in harmony. In other words, these are situations when we have a trade-off between expectation and floor. In almost all cash game situations, I believe it is better to prioritize overall expectation above floor.


I believe that skill in cash games depends almost exclusively on picking the best players possible within the cap. I don't think upside, downside, correlation, or ownership are relevant considerations in cash games. Given this, I advise the following: If you use projections and are confident in their accuracy, you should optimize on those projections and use the lineup that projects for the highest score. Generally speaking, you should only deviate from the highest projected lineup for cash games if you are skeptical of the projection for a certain player. For instance, you may believe your projections are overrating an inexperienced player due to an insufficient sample size, and you may therefore decide to exclude that player and then re-optimize. If you do not use projections, you should still attempt to mimic this process and choose the lineup that will score the most points, on average.


This process may seem simple, but I believe it is the best approach for cash games. Unfortunately, this simplicity is a major reason why it's so hard to maintain a large profit margin in cash games. The vast majority of players who are diligent enough to find the best possible cash game lineups will often come to similar conclusions, making it extremely difficult to beat the rake against those opponents.


The Relationship Between Entry Fees, Field Size, and Rake


Some players will make a lineup and enter it into any cash games they like without much consideration for the differences between them. I recommend that you go beyond this to get every edge you can. Review your results to see how your win percentages vary by entry fee, contest type, and field size. If you're like most players, you'll be more likely to win a $5 cash game than a $530 cash game of the same type. On the other hand, $5 buy-ins are raked at a higher percentage than $530 buy-ins, so the lower buy-ins won't necessarily be more profitable. There's no better way to know what entry fee level is best for you than to analyze your results. In addition to breaking your results down by entry fee, you should compare results at various field sizes. You may find that larger field Double Ups, though raked higher, may be more profitable than smaller fields, due to the higher ratio of amateur to professional opponents.


Differences Between Contest Types


If you've played nothing but Double Ups or 50/50s on a slate, and nothing but Head to Heads on another, you've surely noticed some differences in the patterns of your results. If you're playing just one lineup, Double Up and 50/50 outcomes from a single slate will correlate much more strongly than Head to Head outcomes from the same slate. This is because the required score to cash converges to a very consistent level within a slate for large field cash games, but your opponents' scores in Head to Head matches can vary wildly within a slate. As a result, slates focused on Double Ups and 50/50s will be prone to larger swings than slates focused on Head to Heads. For this reason, I recommend a more conservative bankroll management strategy for a Double Up or 50/50 player than a Head to Head player, all else being equal.


You may be surprised to learn that cash game types may present different expected ROIs, especially if you are a very strong or weak player. Because Head to Heads and other small cash games have more cash line volatility, results in those contests are more likely stay near the average result for all players, which is break-even minus rake. Small stakes Head to Head matches are the ideal contest for a losing recreational player, because this player doesn't necessarily need an above average lineup to win; sometimes he'll get by just because of variance in opponent scores.


On the other hand, a very strong player has more opportunity to leverage his edge in Double Ups and 50/50s. The larger his edge is, the more he can benefit from consistency in the cash line. Of course, bankroll management concerns still apply with these contests.


Differences cash game contest types add color to the expectation vs. floor trade-off. Given that cash lines in Head to Heads vary significantly, I strongly recommend against sacrificing expectation to raise your lineup's floor. You really don't have any idea how many points you'll need to score to win a Head to Head match, but you can be confident that maximizing your expected score will maximize your expected win percentage.


Because cash lines in large Double Ups and 50/50s are consistently near site-wide median cash game scores, I believe it's hypothetically possible for an elite cash game player to increase his ROI by trading off expectation for floor. Let me emphasize that this is only a possible exception, and it clearly isn't the norm. If you think that a lineup you perceive to be suboptimal is strong enough to beat most of your opponents' best lineups a majority of the time, you may be overestimating your edge. Unless you've shown a Double Up or 50/50 ROI over 10% in a large sample, I don't think it's worth even considering trading off expectation to raise your floor.


Putting It All Together


Perhaps you've been playing cash games because they're a way to experience the joy of winning frequently. Maybe you've played them because you like to play without exposing your bankroll to big swings. You may have even played cash games because others in the DFS community advised that it's the only proper way to manage your bankroll. Think about why you've played cash games, and think about how you'll approach them going forward. If you struggle to make a profit, stick to small stakes Head to Head matches, or skip cash games altogether. If you've done well over a large sample, consider focusing more of your cash game bankroll on large field Double Ups and 50/50s to leverage your edge. Finally, regardless of the cash games you choose to play, make sure you play your best overall lineup, rather than sacrifice expectation for floor.