The Westgate SuperBook is gearing up for the 2018 edition of the Las Vegas SuperContest, a $1,500 buy-in football pick’em extravaganza widely regarded as the most prestigious handicapping contest in the world. This past week, Westgate hosted SuperContest Weekend, which featured a ring ceremony for all past SuperContest winners (seen above).
Registration for this season’s tournament is open until Sept. 8. Westgate hopes to beat last year’s record of 2,748 entrants. The top 100 will players get paid a minimum of roughly $4,000. Last year’s winner, Briceton Jamar “Granny’s Boy” Branch, walked away with $1,327,284.
Points in the SuperContest are earned by picking five games a week for the full NFL regular season. Every game picked correctly is a point earned and losses do not count against a player’s score. If a game pushes, a player earns a half point.
Branch finished the 2017 season with a 58-22-5 record to earn 60.5 points. Only one player in SuperContest history, Steve Fezzik (2008,2009), has managed to win twice.
Varying strategies propel new blood to the winner’s circle each year. Sometimes, the eye test is as good as the numbers. And others have opted to avoid watching the games altogether, instead relying on data.
TheLines caught up with three SuperContest winners who shared their plan of attack in the year they conquered the NFL odds jungle.
Damon Graham – 2016
The story of the Starbucks-barista-turned-football-sharp floored competitors in 2016. Graham’s rise to $900,000 was done through careful planning combined with an acute gut instinct.
Two seasons of experience in the SuperContest served as a learning tool for Graham to improve his performance.
“I think some of the strategies you pick up is to look at scheduling,” Graham asserted. “Tough divisional games, injuries and how they affect teams. You pick up more of the numbers and just a feel for teams you know.”
Graham is originally from Maryland and holds an eye on the NFC East while living in AFC West territory.
When the lines were released by Westgate each week, Graham would immediately choose six or seven games he wanted to dig deeper into. Those six or seven were whittled down to the five Graham submitted each week.
Twitter served as a place of finding for Graham. He used beat writers covering the games he liked for the week and drained their fountain of up-to-the-date injury reports.
Graham says he researched for one hour daily before work and then a few hours every night picking up nuggets.
“I look at those beat writers for the matchups to see if they have any inside information,” Graham said. “Mostly, I had a feeling about six or seven games I wanted to go deep into. I would then research and narrow it down to five. If I didn’t find five great ones, I would narrow it down to three.”’
James Salinas – 2015
“It’s the eye test,” says James Salinas. The 2015 champion won in his first time entering the SuperContest and devoted all of his free time to the $906,675 cause.
“I watch all the games on Sunday and record them and then go back and watch during the week. I’m not a statistical guy. I don’t look at the mathematics. Football is a very emotional game and that’s my perspective on it.”
Salinas is a youth football coach with more than 20 years of experience. Not many have the locker room insight that plays a role in Salinas’ thought process on a week-to-week basis. If a team is ready for a huge letdown, Salinas is there to scoop up the value.
“I try to get in the heads and the locker room of those players and that team,” Salinas told TheLines. “It’s only 16 games a season but they definitely don’t bring the same level of intensity in every game.”
The underdog mentality teams are ostensibly equipped with is on the mind of Salinas.
No betting distractions got in the way for Salinas midway through the season. A sports bettor from his late teenage years, Salinas eliminated basketball and playoff baseball from his mind. A sole focus on the NFL was required to watch the games as many times as possible.
Salinas offered one more rule he imposed.
“I’m flexible and probably the biggest thing was not doing Thursday games,” Salinas said. “I really need to see the injury and practice reports. It’d be a disservice if I put Thursday plays in because you have to put all five plays in. I’d wait until the last minute on Saturday morning.”
Robert Burns – 2006
The third SuperContest winner we talked to didn’t even need to watch the games. Robert “Jarhead” Burns beat 416 entries by using the NFL Gamebook as his primary source of reference.
According to Burns, the Gamebook is the best place to access the stories behind the numbers.
Each Gamebook contains all pertinent information for the respective game including lineups, play-by-play, and all pertinent statistics.
Burns’s strategy still revolves around the Gamebook to this day.
“The data hasn’t become any better,” Burns stated. “The Gamebook is the only source for NFL data. The people at Pro Football Reference take from the Gamebook and massage it differently but it is still the same data.
Numbers behind a player’s name are a fool’s errand to evaluate without being aware of the context. Burns navigates the Gamebook and assigns his value system to what the stats really mean.
“Most of the stuff in a boxscore is not independent. You can’t use things like rushing yardage or passing yardage because the plays that are called during the game are dependent upon the score and the time remaining. They’re not independent of score.”
Burns wraps his strategy around number inefficiencies he finds during the offseason. Week-to-week preparation is a minimal chore.
“I would spend a very small amount each week because you would isolate on a certain statistic which you can pick up on in a half hour. The time taken up is after the season is over until the new season starts trying to get better independent variables and get a better one to massage the data.”
Since winning, Burns added two more SuperContest cashes, finishing in the top 10 in 2010 and 2013.
Cash or bust in 2018, Burns is prepared to take on the beast.