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July 23, 2015

Fantasy Rounders

Playing Slalom with Landmines

by Doug Thorburn

Back in my college days, a time when poker was nearly as much a way of life as baseball, I would take frequent treks to Las Vegas for the pure intent of playing cards. Living in San Diego, it was a quick four-hour jaunt up Interstate 15, and with hotel stays for $30 per night it was workable even for a starving college student. The goal of the trip – aside from winning money – was to log as many hours as possible at the tables in order to maximize profit potential.

One night, I'm playing at a No-Limit Hold 'em table when a guy sits down on my left and proceeds to act like a fool, raising and calling hands indiscriminately without regard for the quality of the cards in his hand. It was blatant and obvious, so the other players at the table were just waiting on good hands to double up their stacks, because this guy kept buying in and continued to give away chips on terrible hands.

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After the piggy bank had finally given up and left, I found myself talking to the dealer about the absurdity of that particular encounter and that I felt lucky to have been sitting at his ATM of a table. The dealer went on to tell me that it wasn't an unusual circumstance at all, and in fact he sees someone like that every night. The dealer went on to inform me that people like this are all over Vegas, and that more money was waiting to be made by being selective with tables and opponents than by the hands themselves; he went so far as to say that some grinders will actively seek out these fish by touring the poker rooms each night until an opportunity was presented to sit down. It was an astonishing epiphany for a 22-year old kid who had been overly preoccupied with his own game, to open his eyes and appreciate the surroundings.

It's a lesson that carries over to DFS, though it took me a little while to fully appreciate it in this context. There are some players who participate in an ungodly number of contests, such that you see their code names all over the place on Draft Kings. These are the pros, the ones that put thousands of dollars on the line on a daily basis and utilize all of the clubs in their respective bags to turn a profit, and if they've been doing it this long (at a high volume no less) then they're typically doing something right. I will assume that these players have a higher score, on average, than most DFS players, and though the competitor in me wants to beat the best, the realist in me says that this is one of the few areas where one can exhibit control over his fate in the daily game.

I have often compared DFS to online poker, but a key distinction is that in poker a player can bail on a hand after the flop if the board isn't to his liking, or he can make a play that might get his opponent out of the hand, but such an opportunity doesn't exist in DFS. Instead, it's like playing Hold 'em if you have no choice but to go all in before the flop, deciding before rosters lock whether this is the right play with the lineup that's been constructed. There is little control once the games start, so the best that a DFS gamer can do is to try and downgrade the quality of their opponents by playing slalom with the professional landmines that dot the DFS landscape.

This strategy isn't too difficult to execute, and though an advanced knowledge of the gamer pool certainly helps, a quick check around the lobby will reveal those players who are playing with an inflated payroll. Anybody who can play in a head's up for $100 or more is outside my paygrade, and though having a heavier bankroll is far from a lock in terms of determining a quality gamer, the fact of the matter is that ( similar to poker) more money allows a gamer the freedom to make more mistakes while the short-stacked player needs to play almost perfectly in order to survive the gauntlet.

With this concept in mind, I'll try to avoid gamers that have set up 10 or more head's up contests, whether overall or within a single pricing band (starting at $5-per-game or more). Some pros have become wise to this and adjusted their number of head-to-head games accordingly, but anybody who can afford 10 games at literally any price is once again above my paygrade. You'll see these guys at the lower-priced tournaments as well as the expensive stuff, and another indicator is to step into the “League” portion of the lobby to see who has signed up for all of the three-man leagues. There are certain times to sign up if one wants to avoid the inevitable game with maxdalury (who is currently in first place on the RotoGrinders big board), and I have found that the variation in opponents really opens up in the last three hours before games lock for the night slate (after 4:00pm EST).

It's the preemptive buy-ins that get casual gamers caught in a sea of pros, signing up for whichever tournament parameters are to their liking without regard for the opponent. I used to do this, utilizing my night owl sleeping schedule to get the day set far ahead of when it was necessary, but I found that the thin red line felt elevated beyond the 100-point threshold that had been standard over the past couple of years. Such was the case before I realized that the general population hadn't necessarily raised the bar, but that the frequency of play for the top gamers put them in a position to face me an inordinate number of times, so when I realized the error of my ways I began hand-selecting all of my cash games.

I tend to play a lot of heads-up games and three-man tournaments, and I'm convinced that my recent emphasis on opponents is the reason why I still have a bankroll. I lost most of my initial investment with a slow bleed that started in late June, as solid scores (which would have been profitable in the past) were coming back with fractional returns on investment, as a month of 100-point lineups acted like a leech on my bankroll. I have since concentrated on avoiding the pros by selecting head's up tournaments with screen names that I don't recognize and which have set up minimal games. In three-man tournies, for example, I'll wait until two spots have been filled, click on the tournament to reveal the identities of those who have entered, and only join the game (hence filling it) if the names are non-threatening.

Small sample caveats abound, but I have won three consecutive three-man tournaments ($20 each) that way, and in each case I put up a score that was solid-yet-unspectacular and more likely to get trumped by a pro. I certainly don't want to read too much into this small cross-section of games, but the results have been consistent, as the profit bar has been lowered when facing opponents who are less of a guarantee to be doing research or using a strategy that is tried and true. It's like when I used to see Johnny Chan or Daniel Negreanu playing cards at the Bellagio – I don't have the bankroll to sit with those high rollers, and even if I thought that I could hang, why would I risk my money against an established pro when there are fish swimming in the barrel nearby?

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

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Premium Article Eyewitness Accounts: J... (07/23)
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