Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fantasy Sports - Art vs. Science

In the classic post Art vs. Science, back when I used to post about poker, I made the case that a different set of skills were emphasized when playing cash games vs. tournament poker. Cash games were more science than art, and tournament poker was more art than science. Ultimately, to be successful at poker you should be good at both, but the arty types tend to prefer MTTs, and the math nerds cash games, all else being equal. So what about Fantasy Sports, and specifically Daily Fantasy Sports (most similar to poker) like we run at FantasySportsLive.com?

It turns out that success at fantasy sports requires the same two skills sets. People use both art and science (or one or the other) to try to beat Fantasy Sports for a profit. Lets say that art is your sports knowledge and feel for who will do well in a given match-up. You have watched a ton of games, and followed a ton of teams, and as a result you just know who to pick each day for your fantasy team. You found out that some rookie will be getting a start, or just remember a favorable match up from the past and adjust your team accordingly. You are playing based on feel for the game, and don't need to run any numbers to confirm your selections. If you have a good depth of sports knowledge, and a good understanding of specific match-ups, that is all you should need to make money at fantasy sports. The poker player who plays like this has never studied pot odds, and does not give a crap about outs. He/she has played enough hands to get a feel for what is the correct move, and they simply go with there instincts.

Next there is the science approach. Lets say that you don't have any sports knowledge at all, but wanted to earn a few extra dollars playing fantasy sports. You learn the fantasy scoring system for a given site, and start crunching the numbers. You take a pure statistical approach to the game. While the art guy may know a hitter does pretty good against left handed pitching, the stat guy knows exactly how well every player in the league does against left handed pitching. The Art guy may make a pretty good choice here, but the science guy has the numbers to see if any other possible choices are better. The science guy simply uses historical statistics to forecast what will happen in the game that will be played today. He does not need to know a thing about any individual player, just that player x is the best statistical selection for position y in today's match-ups.

Now for the blended approach. Statistics can lie, and unless you keep going to deeper levels you may not be able to get the results that you want. For example lets say that a certain rookie has been coming off the bench all year, but due to an injury will be starting going forward. The Art guy is all over this. He has the rookie in his line-up immediately, because his sports knowledge tells him that's a good choice. The Science guy does not see this. Historical stats are still crap for this player. Now if the Science guy is weighting recent performance (going to a deeper level), he will start to see after a few games, that this rookie has become the best selection. So the science guy eventually gets it right if he digs deep enough into the stats. If this same thing happens, but this time on an obscure team the Art guy does not follow closely, the Science guy catches it way before the Art guy. So just like with poker you should use both approaches for the highest level of success.

There is a key difference between poker and fantasy sports though that I have left out. When people play by feel at poker, they are often pushing people around at the table. For example lets say you are drawing to a flush with one card to go, and you need to call a bet to continue. The science guy runs the numbers, and knows if he has "pot/implied odds" to chase the draw, and makes a decision based on that. The art guy also runs though all the similar situations he has been in in the past and probably comes to a similar conclusion. Now lets say the draw was missed, and you are bet into again and are holding top pair or something weak. The science guy may call based on the odds of having the best hand, but will probably not get out of line here. The feel guy, may shove all-in on the missed draw, and force a better hand to fold. The key difference here is that you can't be pushed off your fantasy sports team like you can a poker hand. A maniac, that may be hard to deal with mathematically, and force you to play by feel, can't exist in fantasy sports. They can only do what you are doing, and pick the best possible fantasy team. For this reason I think the Art edge can be substantially reduced, and Fantasy Sports could be played effectively with a nearly pure Science approach. The maniac in poker can be dealt with scientifically, but it requires game theory, which is tough to solve for complex situations like a poker game. You don't ever need game theory in fantasy sports, so success in fantasy sports could be as simple as determining proper drawing odds, and making sure that you get them when drawing.

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