Taking DFS to Task in “Dueling with Kings”

Most people know my strong opinion when it comes to daily fantasy sports (DFS). From my annual disclosure statement: “I think daily fantasy sports (DFS) are an excellent, exciting variant that requires a different skills set in order to excel. I think the manner in which cash winnings are tied to the core game completely bastardizes the experience.”

But really, that soft-peddles my position. When it comes to DFS companies, particularly Fanduel and Draft Kings, I am not a fan. Click the link; read what I really think.

I know that many of you do share my opinion; that’s why you gravitate to this site. Unfortunately, when it comes to my industry colleagues, I am on an island. Most of them embrace DFS. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association is completely in bed with them, though admittedly, they were somewhat forced into cohabitation. Money can buy a lot of things. I was a charter member of the FSTA when it formed in the late 1990s, but I allowed my membership to lapse two years ago.

So I was particularly excited when I finally got around to reading Daniel Barbarisi’s book, Dueling With Kings: High Stakes, Killer Sharks, and the Get-Rich Promise of Daily Fantasy Sports.

Barbarisi is a former Yankees beat reporter who had grown weary of the beat. Introduced to DFS, he was an immediate skeptic, dubious that these games were completely skill-based and not gambling. But he was taken in by them and decided to figure out how to become a DFS shark. The book chronicles his adventure while concurrently providing a comprehensive description of the industry events that unfolded in 2015 and 2016.

DWK has many parallels to Sam Walker’s Fantasyland book. Both authors were novices in their respective disciplines and attempted to jump into the deep end of the pool with little more than their wits. In Fantasyland, the sharks were the members of Tout Wars. In DWK, the sharks were the mega-winners at the top of the DFS food chain.

Barbarisi’s journey is both fascinating and unsettling. It describes the massive excesses that mega-millions has brought – lavish parties, Playboy bunnies and a bunch of suddenly rich data nerds. He tells about how poker industry leaders helped propel the game’s growth. Perhaps most disturbing to this purist was reading about how some of the best – and richest – DFS players are not even sports fans.

Barbarisi describes the escalating media war between Fanduel and Draft Kings, and the events that almost took down the industry. One of the most important moments in the survival saga happened in June 2016 when New York State passed a law legalizing DFS. Barbarisi reported first-hand from the legislative session in Albany and details the chain of events that led to the bill’s passage. (Spoiler alert: It had little to do with the merit of the bill.) If you were not nauseated by politics before, you will be after reading this chapter.

Chapter 10 talks about his experiences at the 2016 FSTA conference where keynote speaker Mark Cuban pushed back at the threat of government intervention. I was at that conference too and had forgotten that I had spoken with the author. So it took me by surprise to find myself quoted in the chapter. I don’t recall the conversation specifically (aging brain syndrome), but the words he attributes to me are certainly things I would have said.

I haven’t personally written much about DFS lately because the current state-by-state damage control… um, lobbying efforts to legalize the sport have been out of the headlines, and the progress being made is less than palatable to me. If there is even one state where DFS is deemed legal but a new company’s cost of entry into that state is prohibitive, then the progress is not real. As long as the odds of winning are tilted towards those with the deepest pockets, then the playing field will never be level.

DWK is an important read because Barbarisi’s personal adventure reveals the true underpinnings of the daily game. Maybe I came into the read with a personal bias but I can’t imagine anyone coming out of it without a firm answer to the question, “On the continuum between skill and chance, which way does DFS lean?”

Click below to order your copy:

15 thoughts on “Taking DFS to Task in “Dueling with Kings”

  1. Tim McCarthy

    I’ve read too many financial books to read another book that depresses me with facts so I can’t take reading the book. But I do want to thank you (and Mr. Barbarisi) for being the “lone wolves” on this one. DFS is not really bad or good, I think – bettors will find places to bet – but I simply hate that it’s called fantasy baseball. Hate it, hate it, hate it. It’s like calling blackjack “bridge”. Both are card games but one you just hold above 13, sip your drink, smoke your cigarette and see if chances are in your favor today. In any event, thanks for staying the course, keeping the faith. As soon as I hear the word “daily” on channel 87 Sirius (fantasy channel), I switch to 89 (MLB channel) until they’re done. I don’t want to hear about gambling, I want to hear about strategy.

    1. shandler Post author

      I do the EXACT SAME THING with my Sirius/XM radio!!

    2. Keith Maletta

      Hahahahaha! I do the same thing as well. The BEST true fantasy baseball channel is MLB 89 on XM. I view the entire DFS experience as gambling. It’s the modern day version of O.T.B. (for you New Yorkers out there). Growing up, my dad would place bets each day at O.T.B. after reading the sheets. How is DFS any different? For me, it’s season long, or it’s gambling. Once money becomes the sole reason for doing something, and the payouts are immediate, and the action is done ‘daily’, it’s gambling.

  2. joseph sworen

    Ron :
    Yes, there is no argument that DFS is more about how much you can win (in dollars)-as if you never lose. Politicians have now been lobbyed in its behalf. To use the word “lobby” is being very kind on your part. I can think of another word (bribery). Unfortunately like you, I have some age behind me. This season, in particular, is a harbinger of the future. As of today, there are currently 148 players on the DL. Yes, everybody is in the same boat, but it is becoming more and more futile, to translate skill levels to possible season long projections. Ultimately, the extreme injury factor is what created the birthplace of daily fantasy football. I believe fantasy baseball is headed for the same fate. The old will get older and ultimately disappear, I am very disappointed with what MLB has become, along with the fantasy game. Sadly, DFS, is here to stay and I believe that season long play is headed towards a bleak future, in terms of the younger more action-oriented generations. I hope that I am wrong, but, the arrows are pointing in that direction.

    1. shandler Post author

      You paint a bleak, but realistic picture. Many full-season gamers are frustrated right now, and the 10-day DL may become a tipping point to massive changes. I have to think more about this but I might write a column about it shortly.

      1. fish-tacos

        I would love to hear your suggestions, thoughts. My league is lobbying me (try bribing dummies…) for an extra DL spot but I do not want to mess with rules midseason.

        1. joseph sworen

          Fish :
          Dont know your settings, or your roster move restrictions. Prior to this year, I always felt one DL spot was too few and three was too many. Two . always seemed to be a fair and reasonable number. Like I said in my post, ” were all in the same leaky boat” and misery loves company. I wouldnt think about adding, unless you are presently only using one DL spot. MLB doesnt care about season long fantasy, I think that this is going to be here for a while, we’ll have to figure it out going forward. Just my own humble two cents, and good luck with with your decision.

          1. shandler Post author

            I never understood leagues that limited the number of DL spots you could have. Why? You can’t control injuries. Why penalize a team more than the injuries themselves already are doing? I’ve got 10 players on the DL in one league, and I am not about to choose which of David Price, Wilson Ramos, Cam Bedorisan, Aaron Nola, Drew Smyly, etc. etc. I have to cut to get under some arbitrary limit.

            1. fish-tacos

              We currently use two DL. I don’t want to make changes midseason (even if I did just lose Freeman *sniff*). But I will make it at least 4, maybe unlimited next year. My only fear was the health “rich” teams stockpiling all the DL prospects on their benches as a private waiver wire. A healthy team could horde Carter Capps et al.

              1. shandler Post author

                How’s that working out for the Capps owner right now? And once Capps returns to action, that owner is going to have to find a spot for him on a fixed-size roster, which means someone is going to have to get cut.

              2. Matthew Cederholm

                Plenty of ways to prevent this. First, if the player is drafted, he’s taking up valuable roster space until he can be replaced. You could not allow free agent pickups of players on the DL. Or require a minimum FAAB bid.

                My home league has no reserve and unlimited DL spots, but $5 minimum ($100 budget) to pick up a player on the DL. We’ve had two such moves this year.

                Ron is right (to a point). It’s unfair for a team to be penalized twice—once when they lose a player to injury, and again when they can’t keep that player. Of course, with limited DL slots, drafting less risky players takes on additional importance, but even ostensibly risky players get hurt.

      2. Jack Kohler

        When you write your column on the 10 day DL, be sure to advise leagues to adjust down their transaction fees. Whoever wins our league this year will set a record for winnings.

  3. James McKnight

    An argument that full-season fantasy sports fans lost, if the argument was even made, was that full-season games differ from daily games. One could make a case that one is a skill game and the other is gambling, and if a trade association couldn’t be bothered to mention that, then it must really be the DFS trade association. Winning a poker hand for cash is gambling, yet winning the WSOP takes more than that. Picking a successful investment can be done with research, while picking the daily numbers cannot. The difference that ended up mattering is that much more money can change hands in a daily game, and no one with deep-pockets cared about a game where you have to lay out money for 6 months in order to possibly get a bit more to come back to the players. DFS turned out to be a lousy neighbor which used the traction that full-season fantasy sports had as a skill game to get its online gambling sites up and running. What I worry about is that the two games are still tied together as fantasy sports. If DFS has trouble with corruption or unfair games, this could lead to regulation, which leads to compliance by companies with audits and government forms. These things have expenses and we can expect the payouts on websites to decrease as sites pay to comply with changing rules. This was not needed for years with full-season sports, but DFS can make trouble for full-season sports since I haven’t seen any arguments differentiating the two activities. I’m sorry if I sound like doom and gloom, and hopefully none of this occurs as there’s really nothing I can do about it, but it sucks for your neighbor to attract attention that could give us all a problem.

    1. shandler Post author

      Your are completely on target, and your perspective is reflected in this book. To my mind, the difference between DFS and full-season is… In DFS, you set a lineup and then the result is out of your control. In full-season, you are constantly managing your roster for six months. While the result is still out of your control, you can still manage around the uncertainty. A player gets hurt during a game in DFS? You lose. A player gets hurt in full-season? You research and find a replacement. Which requires more skill?

  4. Nicholas Lang

    I am ambivalent about DFS per se. In general, I think that, while skill can permit one to win consistently in both cash and tournament games, the time, effort, and computer power needed to mobilize that skill is beyond the reach of amateur players.

    More specifically, I will not forgive DFS for provoking politicians in my state (Virginia) and elsewhere to enact legislation that has priced major prize-league platforms, e.g. CBS, Real Time Fantasy Sports, out of the market. A case of two kinds of sharks circling the same feeding tank.

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