Debate Forum 11/24/15

Personal foul?

Fantasy sports flagged in New York

By Sarah Sidlow

Recently, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said, “time out” to fantasy sports giants DraftKings and FanDuel, sending them cease-and-desist notices on the grounds that daily fantasy sports constitute illegal gambling in his state. While gambling (read: casinos) has long been regulated in the state of New York, daily fantasy sites have been allowed to operate freely, bringing in half a million users and claiming to award over $3 billion in combined prizes in 2015.
While Schneiderman demanded that DraftKings and FanDuel stop accepting wagers from New York residents, he did not ask the company to stop conducting its national business in New York, and he has claimed he won’t go after the money already exchanged between the fantasy sites and New York customers.
How did we get here? The question really boils down to this: do fantasy sports represent a game of skill, or a game of chance? Why is this important? Because online games of skill are specifically protected under an exception listed in the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006.
Opponents of fantasy sports wagers, including Schneiderman, say: chance.
Actually, Schneiderman said, “each DraftKings/FanDuel wager represents a wager on a ‘contest of chance’ where winning or losing depends on numerous elements of chance to a ‘material degree.’”
What? Basically they say DraftKings/FanDuel customers are placing bets on events outside of their control of influence—a.k.a. a star arm, a possible player injury or maybe even the weather. It’s not the same as, say, playing a game of chess and intellectually besting your opponent.
Detractors also cite the concern that daily fantasy sites could foster future insider trading between the two industry leaders, who shared the spotlight in early October after a DraftKings employee (who had access to detailed statistical analytics) won $350,000 on FanDuel during the third week of the NFL season in September. Oops.
But supporters of fantasy sports, and sites like DraftKings and Fanduel, say they’re engaging in games of skill. Participants conduct hours of daily research and often come to the plate with their own statistical formulas, theories and insights on how to manage their fantasy teams. They’re not just playing and benching players all willy-nilly. To participate successfully, they say, requires a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the game, its players and its coaches, and maybe even its officials.
Outsider regulation, they say, is unnecessary. The two giants have proven that they will self-regulate effectively. Just look at how they handled October’s debacle: both companies barred their employees from participating in contests of any form—just two days after news of the employee’s win.
Moreover, they say, this is just another example of the fun police treading on a harmless lark. If fantasy sports are to be regulated, what’s next?

Reach Dayton City Paper freelance writer Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com

NFL payoffs

By Ben Tomkins

I’ve never played fantasy football, so I can only assume this is all great fun. It’s an excuse to watch as much football as you possibly can—presumably telling your significant other who thinks you are crazy to piss off because you are kind of, sort of, at work because there’s money riding on it—drink lots of beer on the weekends, and most of all, stand around a metaphorical water cooler for many more hours than you might otherwise and endlessly speculate about your favorite game.
Fantasy Football has been going on since the 1960s, and it really started to get big ten to 20 years ago. Groups of friends were getting together to start local pools, and generally everyone would toss in 20 bucks or so and hope for the best. However, in recent years, fantasy sports have exploded into gigantic international slot machines like DraftKings. I have a friend who came in second a few years ago in a major tournament in Las Vegas, and he won something like half a million dollars.
This is where fantasy football begins to turn into delusional football. As soon as the possibility of a continued revenue stream or a gigantic paycheck is involved, there is a terrible temptation to believe that the reason you won at penny slots last night is because you worked out a system. Fantasy football offers a fantastic complexity that masks the software inside the machine.
At best, the players a person chooses to play or bench is an informed gamble. I will grant that it is possible to study potential match-ups, coaching styles, analyze offense and defensive structures and read up on every ingrown toenail a player might have, how it has historically affected their performance and in what way. From a game perspective, it offers a hell of a lot, and the more information you have the more intelligently you can choose your players. However, each of these choices is in-and-of-itself nothing more than an individual wager.
A chance game comprised of pure knowledge is not a skill. Professional poker is a fantastic foil to fantasy football in the skill vs. chance department. Poker requires a gigantic knowledge base, just as fantasy football does. You have to know the odds, and you have to know as much as you possibly can about your opponents. Yes, there is a tremendous element of chance in poker because of the cards, but the big difference between the two is that, in poker, you have to employ learned skills in the context of that knowledge to win.
Deception, judgment and general gamesmanship have a huge impact on the outcome, which is why some people win all the time. They’re getting the same random cards as always, but their skill-set is what’s allowing them to mitigate the impact of that randomness. There is a horrible temptation to confuse a poker player who has more knowledge than their opponent with someone who has greater skills than their opponent, because both can produce the same results, but it’s about as obvious as can be that getting your butt kicked because your opponent knew the chances of you making that straight were far worse than you thought is not about skill. Skill is getting your opponent to fold when you both know exactly how unlikely it is you won’t make that straight. Knowledge informs a gamble, and skills are developed behaviors that can be directly applied situationally.
That is exactly the reason fantasy football is a game of chance. It is entirely knowledge-based. You can set the dominoes up however you want, but when the game actually starts you have precisely zero control over the play calls, adjustments that must be made, and all the other things that players and coaches have to deal with that are absolute skills, and it’s why they get salaries and you get payoffs. Toss into that mix the fact that your horse could break its leg ten feet out of the gate, and you’re really taking a gamble.
The draft process is, in fact, the only place where a fantasy football player and a professional football coach overlap. It is theoretically possible for a fantasy football player to gain as much knowledge about a player as a coach; you could actually be seeing the same thing when you make a pick. That being said, just because a professional and a fantasy football player are engaging in the same task doesn’t mean there’s a skill involved. It’s just that the coaches have to step over to the gambler’s table sometimes too.
Consider Johnny Manziel. Don’t do it for too long or you’ll get a hangover. The kid looked great in college ball because you can make ridiculously bad decisions like scramble away from fifteen gigantic Alabama defensive line guys and throw a blind forty yard pass into triple coverage that miraculously works because, well, it’s college.
Transition to the NFL? Gorgeous…
The Browns’ owner really thought he had a hot hand.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking fantasy football by calling it a game of chance and not skill. I’m just calling it what it is. If there ever comes a day where fantasy football players can vote on the next play then it will be—oh god, sorry about this—a different ball game.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

Skills pay the bills

By Don Hurst

According to the Fall 2006 edition of the North Carolina Journal of Law & Technology the legal standard that courts and legislators most often use to determine if a game is skill or chance revolves around these questions: “Is the result of an activity separable from the element of chance, so that skill can be determinative, at least in some cases? Or is the result always sufficiently affected by the operation of chance that chance could always account for the result?” That’s a lot of lawyer speak for asking if our actions significantly matter to the outcome. Does strategy help you win more than just blind luck?
The questions are moot in New York, which possesses a stricter legal standard. New York prohibits sports wagering of any kind in which the bettors are not directly involved in the outcome of the game. The courts have made it very clear that any element of chance makes the activity illegal. The New York laws as written obligate Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to act against daily fantasy sports sites in his state.
Most states do not prescribe to this extreme definition. After all, almost every activity involves chance to some degree. Nothing is 100 percent certain. The trick is determining which games rely on skill and which ones are just blind luck.
Some are easy to determine. Take roulette for example. There is nothing a bettor can do to increase their chances of winning. Barring a mechanical defect in the wheel, there is always a 1 in 38 chance of your number hitting. Studying the individual numbers does not influence the wheel in any way. Conducting pattern analysis of the last 100, one thousand, or even the last ten million winning bets will not increase your chances at all. The wheel spins. The white ball bounces and you will always have a 1 in 38 chance of winning, no matter what. The result is “always sufficiently affected by the operation of chance that chance could always account for the result.”
If fantasy sports websites provided generic numbers instead of names, and you only found out which athletes were on your roster after you placed your bet, then these sites would operate as games of chance. But that’s not how it works. A player’s success depends on their ability to analyze statistics, find undervalued athletes to fill their rosters and predict future performance based on past results. Substitute a few words on the preceding sentence and I could have described a day trader playing the stock market.
Professional fantasy sports players treat the endeavor as a business. The Sept. 10 article “You Aren’t Good Enough to Win Money Playing Daily Fantasy Football” by Joshua Brustein posted on Bloomberg Business earlier this year highlights one of the most successful fantasy football players in the world. Saahil Sud risks $140,000 a day on hundreds of rosters and has won over $2 million this year. Luck has very little bearing on his success. Sud relies on his background as a mathematician and data analyst to research statistics and run complicated prediction models to assemble winning rosters. He averages eight to 15 hours a day on his roster prep.
Eight hours of statistical analysis is much different than crossing your fingers and betting your birthday number at the roulette table. Of course the average fantasy sports player will not commit this much time. The millions of dollars of prize money rarely reaches these casual participants. They are food for the small percentage of apex players, like Sud, who win the most money.
Schneiderman states in his op-ed article in the New York Daily News that his goal is to protect these average “minnows” from these elite “sharks.” If daily fantasy sports leagues were purely games of chance then there would be no sharks and minnows. All players would have a statically equal chance to eat or be eaten. That’s why there aren’t any roulette sharks out there. Schneiderman’s own words subconsciously separate players by skill.
The legality of these leagues depends on semantics and a debatable definition of skill versus chance. However, states like New York have a hard time maintaining the moral high ground while promoting state lotteries. State sponsored gambling depends solely on chance and also relies on the dollars of the many to support the winnings of the few. Why one is permissible and the other one is evil? The government of New York is fine with gambling as long as your money goes into its bank account.

Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at DonHurst@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Sarah Sidlow
Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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