For the past few months, I’ve been knee-deep in daily fantasy sports (DFS). I’ve been working at it often 12 hours a day.
I’m interested for a simple reason. It’s a new game that’s booming right now. The current incarnation of the game is raked and played against other players. And you can create edges through a superior understanding of game theory and the math of the game.
I’ve been loathe to call daily fantasy sports the “second poker boom,” but at this point the comparison is nearly inescapable. Hundreds of thousands of sports fans are depositing their money and playing these games, and the overwhelming majority of those people have no discernible skill. Furthermore, at present, the game is set up in a way to give skilled players some advantages that they never had in poker.
I’m interested in playing every sport at daily fantasy, but this article is about golf.
In full disclosure, I haven’t played the golf yet. I’ve focused mostly on baseball. But I suspect golf may be the juiciest DFS option out there, and I’ll explain why I think so and why I will be taking on golf myself very shortly.
What is Daily Fantasy Sports?
I’ll give you the brief rundown in case you aren’t familiar. The first thing you do is create a lineup. For golf, you pick six golfers. They score points based on how they do on the weekend’s tournament. They get positive points for birdies, negative points for bogeys, and so forth. They also get a bonus based on how they place in the tournament.
Each golfer is assigned a “salary” by the game site operator, and you have to stay within a salary cap when you choose your six golfers. So you can’t just choose the six favorites. You have to dig deeper and find some dark horses.
Once you’ve created a lineup, you enter it into a contest. Here are some of the contests running this weekend.
Those are some huge contests with massive prize pools. It’s the weekend of a major tournament this weekend, so there’s extra action, but the weekly contests are big too. Daily fantasy golf is extremely popular, and as far as I can tell, no one is good at it yet.
The contests are structured like poker tournaments. You pay an entry fee and then wait while they play the weekend’s PGA event. At the end of the event, all the points for each golfer are tabulated, and the lineups are ranked in order from highest score to lowest. Roughly the top 20% of the field cashes, but the prize structures are top-heavy just like poker tournaments. So the real goal, just like a poker tournament, is not to cash, but to finish in 1st place.
How To Get An Edge
So there are two main sources of edge in daily fantasy golf. First, you identify “bargain” golfers whose salary as set by the site operator is cheap compared to the golfer’s expected outcome distribution. If you can fill your lineup with six bargain golfers, and you can do so repeatably, you will consistently score more points with your lineups than the average recreational golf fan who picks two or three favorite golfers and then clicks buttons randomly to fill out the six.
To find the bargains consistently, you have to be able to project performance. Not an easy task. Though I’m interested in golf particularly because it’s not easy. In sports like baseball, football, and basketball, player performance projections have been around for a while, and they are fairly accurate. There are other ways to get edges in those games, but you won’t be the only person who knows Marshawn Lynch is likely to score touchdowns against a bad run defense.
This is where a project called DFS Albatross comes in. It’s run by a friend of mine who is extremely sharp. He actually reminds me a lot of myself, but before I got married and had kids and spent my weekends doing laundry. But I digress.
He combines the available information (which is a little thin for golf, because the PGA is very restrictive on use of its data) with machine learning techniques to produce the most accurate projections of fantasy points before every tournament. DFS Albatross gives you not just an average point score, but gives you percentile numbers, so you know that 50% of the time a golfer will score more than X, 25% he will score more than Y, and 10% of the time he will score more than Z. This is the sort of breakdown you need to play DFS well.
These numbers DFS Albatross produces are not perfect predictions, but they aren’t supposed to be. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And that’s exactly the situation we have now. Lots of money available to win, and almost no one has a clue.
The second source of edge is using game theory. If you glaze over at the mention of game theory in poker, stay with me. This idea is simple, but powerful.
Which golfer is a better play? They both cost $9,000 in salary. Golfer A is projected to score 71 points. You expect at least 30% of the lineups to use him. Golfer B is projected to score 69.5 points. You expect only 5% of the lineups to use him.
Which one is better?
In a vacuum, obviously Golfer A is better, because you get an extra 1.5 points of expectation for your same salary investment. But in a tournament, Player B is clearly better.
Why? Because of the incentives of the payscale in a tournament. The goal isn’t to finish slightly above average. The goal is to finish first—or at least in one of the top spots. If you don’t finish top, hopefully you cash. And if you don’t cash, then it doesn’t matter where you finish. Dead last is the same as top 30%.
If you choose Player A, then when he does particularly well, you don’t really benefit that much. You and 30 percent of the field get that bonus. But if you choose Player B, then when he outperforms, you get a huge boost that most lineups in the field will miss. This simple contrarianism will have you winning NCAA basketball pools at a +EV clip (spoiler for those things: pick the favorites in every game until you get to the Final Four, and then for the championship pick only the 3rd or 4th most popular team, but one that is still live to win it all). It’s also critical in Daily Fantasy Sports.
How do you know which golfer will be used 30% of the time and which less than 5%? Your first time, you won’t. But if you play for a few weeks, and you look at player usage (the percentages are listed by the site once the PGA event goes off and the lineups lock), you will be able to predict which players will be relatively popular and unpopular.
So that’s it. You get an edge in two ways. First, you find the golfers who are expected to outperform their salary price. Second, you find golfers who will perform at or near their salary price, but who for whatever reason you expect to be very unpopular. If you can find golfers who check both boxes, you have found a huge advantage play.
Hopefully I have convinced you to give this a shot. As I said, I’ve been pouring all my effort into this space for months now, and I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t think the opportunity was there. If you’re ready to give it a shot, here are the steps.
1. Sign up for a DraftKings account. DraftKings is one of the two major site operators, and they are the only one of the two that offers golf. Click the banner below to open an account there.
Just like online poker, you can deposit just a few dollars and get your feet wet playing $0.25 and $1 contests if you want. On the other hand, you can also enter the bigger contests dozens or even hundreds of times, so the upside is there if you get good at this.
2. Sign up for DFS Albatross.
You can check out their site, and they publish their projections for past tournaments for free so you can get a sense for what they offer and how well they perform. If you want to take the plunge, you can buy this week’s projections right now. Or you can check out last week’s projections for free. Or you can wait until this week’s tournament goes off and follow the accuracy of their projections real-time by following them on Twitter @DFSAlbatross and if you like what you see, sign up for next week.
3. Dive in.
If you’re like me, you’ll find this world fascinating. The game has many layers, and there are healthy edges to be found. I will warn you, however, that like poker tournaments, these tournaments are high-variance affairs. Only one player can finish first, and even if you have a solid edge, you can have a major downswing. My experience, for example, was that I got “hit with the deck” playing baseball for a while, and it felt like I’d found a secret gold mine. Then I had a really bad week that put everything into perspective. I’m confident based on hours of analysis I’ve done that I’m playing with a large edge, but the week-to-week ride is a wild one. So start small, get a feel for the game, and go from there.
These days, I’m always up to talk DFS on Twitter @EdMillerPoker. So follow me and let’s chat.