How to play high-stakes at a high level

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by Jules McLean, Special Contributor

Published, 8/10/12

Check out Jules' site

My first high-stakes experience was in Las Vegas at the now defunct WCOFF (World Championship of Fantasy Football) in 2004. While surrounded by over 800 like-minded fantasy football addicts waiting for the convention hall doors to swing open, I knew this was more than a draft; it was an experience. When the doors did finally open, there was a sea of draft boards, tables, and people. Nothing has compared to that first time.
I’m going to recount the start of that 2004 draft, but not to re-live my glory years. I’m sharing with you because there are two key components you need to take from the story to be a successful high- stakes player. I will also touch on a few other aspects of the high- stakes game that will put you in a position to win.
“The difference is almost all mental. The top players just hate to lose. I think that’s the difference. A champion hates to lose more than she loves to win.” – Chris Evert
After wandering around the 73 leagues, I finally found my league and took my seat at the one hole. Prior to coming to Vegas, I had done some reconnaissance work on my league mates. I knew the guy sitting to my right at the two hole had won his league last year. There was also another league champion and a few 2nd- and 3rd-place finishers. 
After a few minutes, James “Body Count” Jewell takes his place in the two seat. I introduce myself and offer congratulations on his league championship last season. He thanks me and tells me how close he was to being the Overall Champ last year and that, in fact, he took 2nd place for $40,000. Whoops, I guess my recon wasn’t so good! I was mad at myself for missing that, but I loved that he finished so high. My first thought was, “Well, you aren’t going to repeat that feat this year buddy!” I could feel the competitiveness in me rising. James actually helped me raise my game without even knowing it. 
And that is key component #1 if you want to play at the high-stakes level. You have to not only welcome competition, but you also have to want it and know that you can beat it. There will always be one or more people in your draft who have as good football knowledge as you. The intangibles will set you apart and make you a champion. You have to welcome facing a challenge.
James then asks who I am taking at #1. 2004 was the year when Priest Holmes was the consensus #1 pick, but I was looking elsewhere. I told James, “I am going to make you a holy man,” meaning I will pass on Priest Holmes. I was one of only six owners, out of the 73 leagues, who took LaDainian Tomlinson #1 overall that year. Priest Holmes played only 8 games that year, while LT2 finished the year with almost 1800 totals yards and 18 TDs. I won my first ever high-stakes league that year.
That brings us to key component #2: You have to identify the players that I refer to as “my guys,” and you can’t be afraid the go against conventional thinking when it comes to drafting “your guys.” If I’m going to win, it will be with my guys, and if I’m going to lose, I’d better be able to look back and say I gave it my best shot and with players I believed in. 
And you can bet “your guys” are also somebody else’s guys, so throw Average Draft Position (ADP) out the window. It’s a nice gauge and you can certainly benefit from knowing, on average, what rounds certain players are going, but don’t be afraid to jump on players who could be the key to your success, I always ask myself if there is a player I’m targeting and it is getting close to where I’m willing to draft him, “If I pass on him this round, hoping to get him in the next round, will I be able to live without him? If the answer is no, I’m pulling the trigger early and getting my guy! 
Do not worry what others think of your draft choices! I’ve heard plenty of comments, whispers, and snickers throughout the years when I’ve jumped ADP and taken players I liked. Players like Arian Foster, Wes Welker and Jimmy Graham all got comments or laughs, but you know what else they all had in common? Championships! I remember speaking with 2009 NFFC Overall Champion Steve Luzzi shortly after he brought home the $100,000. I asked him about taking Miles Austin in the 10th round. Nobody, and I mean nobody, was taking Austin that early (the previous year Austin had 13 receptions, 278 yards and 3 TDs). He said he was a big Cowboys fan and had watched them very closely in pre-season. He identified Austin as someone he believed would break out, and he wanted to make sure he got him on his team. So, while the rest of us were fighting for Austin’s services off the Waiver Wire, Steve already had him secured. Austin’s 81 receptions, 1320 yards, and an incredible 11 TDs were key for Luzzi’s march to the $100K.
“Everyone wants to win, but not everyone is willing to prepare.” – Bobby Knight
I see it every year when I go out to Las Vegas for live high-stakes drafts, owners coming to the draft table and using a magazine to draft. Magazines are fine for reference, but the magazines these folks are using have been on the newsstand for at least six weeks, if not longer. The cheatsheets they are using are stale, players have been injured, have emerged in training camps, been cut, etc. 
I’m a firm believer in getting opinions and information from numerous sources, including free and pay sites, Twitter, TV shows, podcasts, and Sirius/XM. I watch a good number of pre-season games also. I cull all the information and form my own opinion, with the most important aspect being what my own two eyes see, whether in training camp (you can learn a lot from practices!) or pre-season games. As much as I like Fantasy Guru and my own site, we are just guideposts (we are good ones, but guideposts nonetheless). The high-stakes players who set themselves apart from others formulate their own opinions.
A great way to prepare or test the high-stakes waters is competing in Satellite leagues offered by the various contests. These are online leagues with smaller entry fees than Main Events. Where a Main Event could cost between $1600 and $1800, you can get into Satellites for as low as $39.95! You get a taste of the line-up requirements, scoring and draft flow at a fraction of the Main Event price. It’s great prep! I encourage everyone thinking of playing high-stakes fantasy football to give it a try, even if it is just starting out with a $150 online Satellite league. You will find out soon enough if you have the chops to compete. 
Something else to keep in mind is in-season management. Most high-stakes contests use Free Agent Acquisition Budget (FAAB) to get players who are on waivers. Every owners starts off with the same budget, usually $1000 (fake money). You will have one or two FAAB periods each week, and this is the only time you can get free agents. You have to get a feel for what players are going for. Most contest owners, if you ask them, will provide you with FAAB examples from the previous year. It’s important to know if a Victor Cruz-type will go for $300 or $500. This is another good point: Don’t be afraid to ask! Have a question about how many points on average it took to win a league in a certain contest last year, ask!
There is nothing in fantasy football like a live Main Event high-stakes draft. And there are also online Main Event leagues for those whose schedule doesn’t permit traveling. Besides the obvious chance to make money and compete, it’s a great community, and you will forge many friendships along the way. James “Body Count” Jewell has not only been a partner of mine during drafts and at Fantasy Freakin’ Football, but also someone I consider a lifelong friend. So make the leap and prove to yourself just how good you are. 

Jules loves fantasy football, comic books, her three legged dog Chloe, her blind cat Emily and Harry, her troublemaking, big handsome cat. Jules has made over $92,000 playing fantasy football and is the first person to win 4 out of 5 NFFC Main Events.  Jules works in the entertainment industry and runs the movie site and fantasy football site

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