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Tao of Bales: The Secrets of Daily Fantasy Sports

Jonathan Bales is a DraftKings Pro and the author of the Fantasy Sports for Smart People book series, most recently Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Win at Daily Fantasy Sports. I think I mentioned this in a past post, but I just finished a book called Zero…

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Jonathan Bales is a DraftKings Pro and the author of the Fantasy Sports for Smart People book series, most recently Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Win at Daily Fantasy Sports.

I think I mentioned this in a past post, but I just finished a book called Zero to One by Peter Thiel. It’s pretty awesome, even if you aren’t really interested in business or anything (I’m not really interested in it in the traditional sense). In the book, Thiel talks about finding “secrets”—important truths that few or no people realize.

“Every one of today’s most famous and familiar ideas was once unknown and unsuspected. The mathematical relationship between a triangle’s sides, for example, was secret for millennia. Pythagoras had to think hard to discover it. . .Most people act as if there are no secrets left to find.” Thiel goes on to describe why people act as though there’s nothing left to discover, citing geography, complacency, and the characteristic I think is most applicable to daily fantasy sports: risk-aversion.

“People are scared of secrets because they are scared of being wrong. By definition, a secret hasn’t been vetted by the mainstream. If your goal is to never make a mistake in your life, you shouldn’t look for secrets.” So the question for us is “Are there any secrets left to find in daily fantasy sports?” And without a doubt, I believe the answer is yes. DFS is still in its infancy; there’s plenty of good information out there and players have come a long way even over the past 12 months, but there’s also so much we have yet to learn. If we were to represent the total possible sum of DFS knowledge that could be discovered as a globe, I’d say the section that has been discovered is maybe the size of Australia. Crikey!

How to Find DFS Secrets

So where are we to look for secrets? From Thiel:

“The best place to look for secrets is where no one else is looking. Most people think only in terms of what they’ve been taught; schooling itself aims to impart conventional wisdom. So you might ask: are there any fields that matter that haven’t been standardized and institutionalized? Physics, for example, is a real major at all major universities, and it’s set in its ways. The opposite of physics might be astrology, but astrology doesn’t matter. What about something like nutrition? Nutrition matters for everybody, but you can’t major in it at Harvard. . . There’s plenty more to learn: we know more about the physics of faraway stars than we know about human nutrition. It won’t be easy, but it’s not obviously impossible: exactly the kind of field that could yield secrets.” I swear I’m going to start writing some of my own thoughts instead of just stealing all his.

But really, I’m not, because I think so many of the world’s great and fresh ideas—the secrets—come from merging ideas. I even stole this idea because it’s what James Altucher calls “idea sex”—taking two separate concepts from unrelated fields, joining them, and creating something new.

And if you start to think about it, the math of this makes sense (and helps to justify why there could be so many secrets left to find). Let’s say there are theoretically 10,000 different basic fields into which all knowledge could be categorized. There are obviously way more, but we’ll say it’s 10,000. That’s a big number, but certainly all humans over the course of our history could uncover all kinds of secrets within those 10,000 fields, and we have.

But what happens when we start to merge fields? Just combining each of these 10,000 fields with each other, we’d have 100 million separate concepts. Some of them might not make sense, some of them are probably impossible, but some could yield secrets.

One of my favorite examples of “idea sex” is that between theoretical physics and Eastern philosophies (Taoism being my personal favorite). There are so many parallels between these two seemingly unrelated fields of study, so much so that there are a number of books that focus solely on their synergy (such as the Tao of Physics). Physics has helped to legitimize a lot of the teachings of Taoism, but Taoism and other Eastern philosophies have also helped theoretical physicists think about the universe in new and unique ways.

To me, this is where the future of “secrets” lies—with the union of our current base of knowledge (the pieces of information we once considered secrets). And when we uncover new secrets, those can be merged with other ideas, and those with others, ad infinitum—an evolution of knowledge through “idea sex” and the creation of new secrets. One of the most helpful “secrets” I’ve utilized—one I discuss often in my books—is the idea of applying Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ‘antifragility’ to daily fantasy sports. That single concept totally changed how I view and approach GPPs.

Where to Start

The first place to start is simply to read. Read things written by smart people. Read things that don’t seem at all related to daily fantasy sports. Read about business, physics, randomness, economics, philosophy, mathematics, self-help, poker—whatever interests you. The process of learning to think about things in a critical way—which is pretty much the backbone of daily fantasy sports—is valuable itself.

Then you can start to apply some of these concepts to daily fantasy sports. Think about which aspects of the game you think aren’t “solved.” Everyone sort of focuses on finding value—how salaries compare to a player’s median projection—but I don’t really think there’s a secret there. First of all, everyone already has that information; you can find dollar-per-point calculations all over the internet. Some are good, some suck, but it’s not difficult to aggregate them and identify high-value players. Second, I’m not even sure “pure value” in that sense is really all that important. Maybe median projections are the astrology of DFS.

There are so many secrets left to be found in daily fantasy sports. I have a million places I intend to look, but here are a few areas that, similar to nutrition, could probably produce a lot of secrets.

Probability: If median projections are a flawed way to view value, which I believe they are, what’s the right way? I think it comes in projecting a range of outcomes for each player. So we know Player X and Y are both projected for 15 points, but what’s the probability of each reaching 25 points? What about the likelihood of one returning fewer than 10 points? Those probabilities are more useful to daily fantasy players than a fixed projection.

Correlations: Even novice players know it’s generally smart to stack a quarterback and a wide receiver tournaments. However, I think there’s a lot more work to be done here on 1) identifying exactly how all these correlations best fit together in a lineup and 2) figuring out when certain heuristics (like “never start a quarterback and running back together”) might not actually hold up. Is it okay if an offense is projected over 30 points? How does the running back’s pass-catching ability affect your decision? Quantifying the answers to these questions is something that’s probably really difficult, but not obviously impossible.

Injuries: Injuries clearly matter a lot in daily fantasy sports, especially football. Solving this puzzle—not just how certain players benefit from injuries, but also how a particular player might be hampered by a specific injury even when playing—is perhaps the next frontier of DFS research.

Game Theory: We hear about game theory all the time, but I don’t think many have really figured out how to implement it properly into daily fantasy sports. How much do you need to worry about your opponents’ beliefs in the Millionaire Maker versus a 100-man league, for example? How do you juggle value with game theory? Does it make sense to utilize game theory even in cash games, or are those strictly about point-maximization? Lots of thoughts here; few answers.

So that’s basically it. Read books. Study things you like. Apply what you learn to daily fantasy sports. Have idea sex. Allow your knowledge to evolve.

And have fun.