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Still alive in your NCAA pool? Hedging might be the play

March 29, 2022 08:54 PM
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One of the college basketball topics we addressed before the start of the NCAA Tournament was the long-term future of office bracket pools in the era of legalized gambling. Well, after being inundated with invites to join various pools, and seeing a number of them offering a five-figure payout to the winner, it appears a sizable population is still interested in filling out brackets.

For those still alive in their pools, the lead up to the Final Four is a time to contemplate whether or not to hedge. The same holds true for those sitting near the top of Calcutta and survivor pools. 

Staying alive in these pools without relying on the likes of Gonzaga, Arizona and Kentucky, plus navigating the emergence of Saint Peter’s, is an impressive accomplishment. All of that success with so many contrarian choices must be rewarded in some way. 

That leads to one of the most polarizing topics within the sports gambling community: hedging. A visceral response usually comes from professionals when this subject is broached. Most bettors, on the other hand, don’t take such an absolutist stance. 

Here are some ideas for those still alive in their pools. Included are remarks from Dan Abrams (@DoctorRazzWSOP), a noted advocate of hedging who uses a mathematical approach in his Pinnacle blog.

“When I started looking into the math behind the Kelly criterion for how to grow your bankroll quickest in different spots, I realized that hedging is sometimes the best play, even if it costs you a little in EV,” Abrams said. “The more you stand to win, the better it is to hedge off some of the risk.”

Abrams, who often has hedging on the mind, suggests pool players and futures players consider their options with only three games remaining in the tournament.

Micromanage

Sitting atop the leaderboard now doesn’t ensure victory. Weighted seeding totals or a tiebreaker of total points in the championship game can derail an otherwise perfect Final Four. 

Before thinking about hedging with a standalone bet, re-examine the rules. Look at the scenarios and possible point totals for entries above and below yours. Even after checking these contingencies, don’t be in a rush to hedge. 

At the start of the Final Four, there are still too many variables to just blindly hedge away. Think about how hard it is to hedge a pre-flop golf bet when your choice is near the top of the leaderboard late on Sunday but there are still three or four other players within striking distance. Papering the leaderboard with hedge tickets is not a wise move. 

That doesn’t mean bettors should avoid making single-game wagers during the Final Four if they are deep in a pool. Separate the handicapping of the games — spreads and totals — from what can happen in a pool. Not doing so could prevent bettors from playing games with an edge because they are too beholden to their pool.

For example, if a pool player has Duke to win the title in a bracket but still has strong feelings the Blue Devils will cover against North Carolina, then play Duke also. That isn’t a hedge since the action stays on the same side, and that is fine if the handicapping says to lay the points. The same holds true for being on the side of the dog in a pool and still wanting to take the points for a single-game wager. 

There should be plenty of in-game wagering early in the Villanova-Kansas game after bettors get a chance to see how the short-handed Wildcats play without Justin Moore. If an in-game play fits your style, it shouldn’t be dismissed just because it doesn’t fall in line with pool selections. 

Another area of pool rules to study is the payout structure. If the pool pays out the top four or five spots, treat those like a hedge. After looking at these payouts, if a bettor feels the drop is too steep from one spot to another, then a hedge or middling bet can work.

Who should hedge?

The starting point here is those in winner-take-all pools having one of the two teams in the national championship game then getting a single-game ticket on the other. 

The best-case scenario for hedging a pool is to have the favorite in the national championship game. That allows the hedge bet to be made on the moneyline of the dog for a plus price, an important factor according to Abrams since it eliminates the juice.

That means for hedging (and middling) purposes, North Carolina beating Duke on Saturday would be optimal. Since the Tar Heels are + 500 (BetMGM) to win the tournament (with Duke + 160, Kansas + 185 and Villanova + 400), UNC will be the team catching the most points in any possible title match. 

A possible Duke-Villanova title game would be titled on the side of the Blue Devils. That matchup would not lend itself to middling since it would come with a lean spread. Though it would be prime real estate for a hedge since a tight moneyline differential makes either hedge economical. 

Also, understanding the point-total tiebreaker before the title game is imperative. If the pool uses the “Price is Right” style and the tiebreaker goes to the person closest without going over, compare your point total with others. If your entry has the same winner as others and your point total is noticeably higher, then follow the flow of the game and be ready to make a contingent in-game wager on the total. You don’t want a high tiebreaker submission to leave you empty-handed, a possibility since most people didn’t anticipate such a low-scoring tournament (as the recent run of 11-1 Unders indicates). 

Anyone in the position to cash in a pool must be an active participant during the national championship game Monday. Watching the game passively while downing beers and chicken wings can be distractions for in-game wagering. And for those on the East Coast, the late tipoff time of 9 p.m. makes it even more difficult. 

When it comes to hedging, Abrams recommends line shopping as much as possible. The motive here is profit, not convenience, so the juice must be taken into account. 

Abrams is often asked how to hedge and at what price. That is a question he can’t answer without examining a bettor’s unique situation regarding the possible winning amount, bankroll and betting motives.

“The math of hedging all depends on how much of a bankroll boost you get if you win the pool,” Abrams said. “If the pool pays 3k and your bankroll is 10k, that’s a 30% boost. That’s enough to benefit from some hedging but it won’t be life-changing additional money.”

According to Abrams, any player still alive in a pool must think of a sliding scale.

“Perhaps you are in a true office pool just with co-workers and close friends. If that pool pays only like 1K, you can hedge if you want but probably better not to. If it is a larger pool with a lot more people and it pays 10k, that’s somewhat life-changing territory since, for a lot of bettors, it would double your bankroll. Then you really want to hedge most of your expected profit.”

Once a bettor decides to hedge, the amount should be based on the pool’s payout. Here are some broad hypotheticals presented by Abrams.  

“As far as how much to bet, you should have a target payout in mind based on how much you can win from the pool. If the pool pays 3k and you’re hedging on the finals, try to make your hedge pay 2k for example. If you already have Duke and hedge on Villanova + 180, then you’d bet about $700 so the payout is 700+ 1260=1960. If you have Villanova already and hedge on Duke at -200, then bet $1,300 so your payout is 1300+ 650=1950.” 

Another option for hedging is to make a move on the Most Outstanding Player for the opposing team. This is much more of a risk-reward play since there is no guarantee who wins it. Still, it deserves a look for those needing to hedge with either Duke or Kansas. Duke’s Paolo Banchero (+ 275 DraftKings) has been doing most of the statistical damage for the Blue Devils and if they win the national championship, the award should go to him. That is why he is the overall MOP favorite.

As for Kansas, Ochai Agbaji (+ 500) is the rightful favorite, but there is plenty of value on Remy Martin (+ 1200), who has led the team in scoring in three of the four tournament games.  

Villanova and UNC will be dogs in a title game against Duke and Kansas, making it unnecessary to use the MOP as a hedge. However, back to a previous point, if a bettor wants to play Jermaine Samuels (+ 800) or Armando Bacot (+ 1000) based on handicapping, then do so as a separate decision from the pool.

Final thoughts 

At this late stage, a bettor still alive in a pool should have a goal in mind in terms of possible winnings. For many pool players, the idea was always low stakes, some good camaraderie and the chance of turning a couple bucks into a couple more bucks. There’s really no reason to hedge for that group.

For those that entered larger pools with the intention of growing a bankroll and adding more units in order to further wagering opportunities, then hedging to make sure that happens in some capacity is sensible. 

As much as Abrams is grounded in quantitative beliefs, he does add that, on occasions, bettors can think with their heart as well as their mind when it comes to hedging. This would certainly be the case for those in bracket pools who might not be able to stomach the possibility of coming up empty. 

“Hedging in general is both mathematical and emotional,” Abrams said. “If you like the security of walking away with some money in that spot and can get a good price on your hedge, then you can feel great about your pool while also making the right math decision.”

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