Breaking the Game – X’s & O’s

Breaking the Game – X’s & O’s

I love the game of fantasy football and I consider myself qualified to provide occasionally useful and insightful advice on how to play the game. …  On the other hand, I am by no means an expert on the game of football itself.  Many analysts are drawn to fantasy for the opportunity to dive deeper into the actual sport and evaluate players, teams, and schemes on as granular a level as possible.  I don’t want to generalize too much, but these are the true football heads who monitor the NFL through the offseason (often at the expense of following other sports) and sometimes disappear down the dynasty rabbit hole.  Me, I’m drawn to fantasy because it’s a fascinating game in ways that are independent of the NFL and the sport of football itself.  

I’m not sure if the nerd or the nerd’s love of games came first, but I’ve always been drawn to mentally challenging activities.  Board games, card games, you name it.  I will try any game once and I typically want to play at least one or two more times to see if my initial experiences taught me how to break the game open.  Everyone dreams of having that sort of ideal understanding in fantasy leagues.  We aim to make the draft picks, waiver adds, and trades that turn what should be an even playing field into a uphill battle for all our challengers.  

What keeps me and countless others coming back to fantasy sports is variance.  The uncontrollable unknowns of weather, health, psychology, etc. prevent us from ever having perfect information.  Fantasy’s lack of true predictability can frustrate us to no end, but it’s also what keeps the game interesting.  There are aspects of the game that are generally predictable, but exceptions to rules have ways of filtering into our results with no regard for the infinite hours of research put in by the games’s community of players and analysts.  Nevertheless, we play and we delude ourselves to believe that with enough work, we will eventually see all the angles, outsmart the game itself, and win every league we join.

breaking the game piecesThis appeal is not unique to fantasy sports.  Monopoly, Cribbage, Battleship, Texas Hold ‘Em, Magic: The Gathering, Mario Kart 64, and most other games with any sort of replay value rely on some elements of variance.  The best games like fantasy football strike an interesting balance between skill and luck.  Why is this? As players, we need to believe that we can win from disadvantaged positions and also against more skilled opponents.  The more we can employ logical and cunning strategy to achieve those wins in the face of despair, the more rewarding our victories become.  The fulcrum between skill and luck is what allows both casual and fanatic players to coexist in the same leagues and still enjoy themselves.

I often find myself thinking about the various lessons I’ve learned to carry from one type of game to the next.  This post kicks off a meandering series of comparisons between fantasy football and seemingly unrelated games.  It comes back to that idea of breaking the game — unraveling the fabric of the rules and variables to create an unbeatable strategy.  Fantasy football can’t necessarily be solved, but other games sometimes can.  I want to develop our understanding of simpler games and translate those principles into shortcuts we can use in fantasy.  Open your playbooks.  We’re starting with X’s and O’s.  

Breaking the Game:  Tic-Tac-Touchdown

“Seriously?  All that talk about games of variance and Greg is kicking off the series with tic-tac-toe?”  That’s right.  Draw up some three-by-three grids, fire up your War Games VHS tape, and let’s get this tic-tac-show on the road.  Wait, you’ve got to fix the tracking.  How am I supposed to see the armageddon-fueled romantic sparks between Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy if you won’t fix the tracking?  Oh, War Games is streaming on Netflix?  That works too.  I don’t care how we watch it.  I just need some mutually-assured inspirado.  

breaking the game shall we playYes, tic-tac-toe is the spark that will light this fire.  How dare you, the voiceless masses that may or may not read this piece, for suggesting that the original game of X’s and O’s doesn’t have variance.  Sure, the wind won’t blow across your nine-square surface and dislodge marks already made, but tic-tac-toe will always feature human variance.

Spoiler alert, but War Games teaches us that if both sides play perfectly within the rules of the game, there can be no winner in tic-tac-toe (or global thermonuclear war, for that matter).  With that said, when two people play a game of tic-tac-toe, there is no guarantee that both sides will play perfectly.  If a mistake is made, victory can be had.  Of course, if you play enough times, you should eventually learn how to avoid mistakes and never lose.  Never losing in fantasy football isn’t possible, but the idea that mistakes can lead to defeat is crucial for fake footballers to learn.  

While tic-tac-toe features only a few opportunities to make mistakes, fantasy is rife with them. Don’t allow fear of mistakes paralyze your decision-making process.  Remember that your opponents are also capable of missteps.  In the long run, our goal is to make fewer mistakes than our opponents.  Furthermore, we can count on our opponents’ fear of slipping up to hinder their willingness to make moves, which allows us to more readily take calculated risks that can evolve into correct choices.  That fundamental concept of initiative is imperative to tic-tac-toe and to fantasy play.

Taking Initiative

It pays to go first.  What is the best spot on the tic-tac-toe board to make your mark?  The middle.  How can you guarantee you’ll own the center square?  No, you don’t have to bribe Whoopi Goldberg with fried chicken and sexual favors.  You must simply go first.  There are eight winning lines in tic-tac-toe and half of them use the center square.  Acting first allows you and you alone to claim the most powerful space available, putting pressure on your opponent to play from behind.  

That value of initiative directly applies to fantasy drafting, where picking earlier affords access to more players and, therefore, more opportunity to correctly pick the best players.  While tic-tac-toe’s turn structure is linear — you get a turn, then I get a turn — fantasy drafts typically snake to alternate who has initiative in each round.  Nonetheless, the person with first pick overall in fantasy typically holds more raw power than his or her rivals.  For evidence of early-pick superiority, check out James Todd’s excellent piece from 2013 on the value of pick slotting.

breaking the game first vs last

Meanwhile, free agency and the waiver wire in fantasy football grant owners license to take the proverbial bull by the horns and create their own initiative.  By being more up-to-date on stats and news from around the league, a savvy owner can grab key free agents faster than his or her opponents and strike preemptively through waivers to add players before they are widely sought after by the fantasy community.  Waiver systems are inherently designed to level the initiative playing field, but waiver priority is irrelevant when one forward-thinking owner has the research initiative to target a key asset before the fantasy hive mind realizes the value of that player.  In 2QB leagues, for example, try adding backup quarterbacks before the corresponding starter gets benched or hurt.

You can also take initiative in the trade market.  Have you ever seen an accepted trade between two other teams and immediately kicked yourself for not realizing a desirable player was on the block, and perhaps furthermore, that you would have offered more value to get that player?  It happens to me in every sport, every season.  Ultimately, there is always more you can be doing to engage with your leaguemates.  Whether by phone, email, social media, league message boards, etc., you can find ways to probe and/or bombard opponents with inquiries and offers.  The phrase “It never hurts to ask,” is old hat, but it holds water.

X vs. O, Mano a Mano

We draft against multiple teams in our fake football leagues, but the in-season gameplay is typically head-to-head, just like in tic-tac-toe.  In both games, you don’t need to be the best player within the universe of all players, you only need to be the best player in your scheduled duel.  

I don’t mean to imply that we should surround ourselves with scrubs to ensure victory (although I’m sure many unambitious players do so).  There’s no challenge or sense of accomplishment to be gained in laying waste to a league of fools.  Ideally, we can play against our equals or better so that the victories at least appear to mean something.  

Still, it often takes time feasting on inferior competition before the realization that one is a shark among minnows.  For home leagues in particular, sharks can settle in and get fat on the inexperienced chum brought in annually by the tides.  There’s nothing wrong with that really.  Our home leagues exist in part to maintain friendships, and disparities in skill level can create fun “David versus Goliath” types of narratives.  However, as an owner plays more and hones his or her fantasy football chops, that person’s skill level should come into focus and he or she will likely gravitate towards more balanced and competitive environments.

In more evenly matched head-to-head contests, it can be difficult to find an edge.  If we assume a level playing field with equivalent understanding on both sides of a given tic-tac-toe game, then the logical outcome is a stalemate.  Neither player wins, but neither player loses.  Tic-tac-toe therefore teaches us to play defensively and hope that our opponent falters.  The key is laying the groundwork so it’s possible to win, even if winning can’t be guaranteed at the game’s outset.  For tic-tac-toe, that means X-ing the center square if you go first.  After that, the O player must choose a corner spot to avoid losing.  If Team O doesn’t take a corner, here’s one example of how it can play out:


It takes the X player seven turns to officially seal victory, but the critical point in this game was Turn 2, when Team O made a sub-optimal play.  Assuming the X player already understood the potential winning sequences, the game was over then and there.  All Team X had to do was go through the motions.

Of course, the winning combinations in fantasy football aren’t as cut-and-dry.  We can build on rules of thumb and past experiences to create processes that often lead to wins, but the best laid plans of Jerry Rice and men often go awry.  (Evidence: Rice is 0-1 as the captain of a Pro Bowl team.  Can’t win ‘em all, even if you’re the GOAT.)  In spite of the game’s variance, you must seek out all potential advantages available within the rules and put your team in the best situation to win.

Getting Creative

Of course, if we assume an equal understanding of the game from both Team X and Team O, then the only potential outcome is a stalemate.  Most players accept this reality and simply stop playing tic-tac-toe in favor of better games.  There are others who decide instead to get creative, resulting in a sequence like this:

tic tac toe cheater

Yes, this is cheating, but it’s also a way to win an unwinnable game.  Faced with the boring construct of perpetual stalemate, the X player goes off the rails simply to see if it works.  Joshua, the computer from WarGames, could have achieved victory if he had considered such a creative strategy.  Thankfully, his programming and the rules of tic-tac-toe drove him to learn the lesson of futility instead of nuking the planet.  The only winning move was not to play.  Fantasy owners don’t want to hear that though, so an outside-the-box strategy ala Team X’s exploitative extension of the game board above is bound to have appeal to some players.

I do not advocate cheating or collusion.  What I want to illustrate here is that it’s useful to think about games on a different level when normal methods of success are fruitless.  You shouldn’t nuke the world, but you might be justified in nuking the whales.  By that, I mean it’s occasionally worthwhile to forsake certain accepted truths of a game to see if they were even true in the first place.  This is how draft strategies like #ZeroRB and #LRQB are born.  They won’t work for any owner in any league, but either can prove successful in the correct context.  

That being said, I’m an unabashed late-round quarterback drafter across all formats.  It’s a strategy that suits me and one rapidly gaining momentum in the fantasy industry, largely because it works.  I doubt it will happen, but said momentum may eventually turn the strategy over to the dark side.  When everyone in the fantasy galaxy is waiting and waiting and waiting to pick quarterbacks, LRQB will have become the new empire of draft strategies.  The masses of quarterback nonpartisans will be that empire’s loyal army of stormtroopers, blindly following the status quo.  

I should reiterate that I don’t expect to see a late-round QB insurgence anytime soon.  Fantasy owners will always find ways to talk themselves into high-profile passers and casual players have a tendency to roster a full starting lineup before daring to draft bench players.  If we can’t convince the fantasy hive mind to disregard kickers until the final rounds, what hope do we have of teaching them to wait on quarterbacks?  I’m not complaining.  I will welcome shipments of quarterback values in the late rounds until I’m dispensing fantasy advice from my death bed in a Dagobah swamp.  

breaking the game yoda

There I go, letting the nerd take over.  Let’s wrap up this post before I break into fanfic, cosplay, or something worse.  I hope this cross-pollination between an impossible child’s game and a childish game for impossible adults was interesting.  Thanks for reading and good luck with all of life’s X’s and O’s.


Greg Smith

Greg Smith is an engineer, co-founder of, and enthusiast for the strategy and design of variance-based games.  When he started playing fantasy football in 2001, his home league's small number of teams necessitated starting two quarterbacks.  That necessity has since grown into obsession, making Greg one of the preeminent champions of 2QB and Superflex formats.

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