I don’t remember the first time I heard about Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS), but I do recall when I stopped paying attention to it. For a couple of years, I had been posting lineups for college basketball DFS and writing about it from time to time. Then, about two years ago, I tried to log in to FanDuel in order to put together a lineup and I was not allowed to. I had never played for money, but I could not even log in as a person living in Louisiana. I was neither here nor there about DFS for the most part, so I decided not to give it another look. I had not thought a lot about DFS since, but it was brought back to my mind as I read Dueling with Kings: High Stakes, Killer Sharks, and the Get-Rich Promise of Daily Fantasy Sports by Daniel Barbarisi.
The book follows a familiar pattern in which a reporter decides to jump into fantasy sports with both feet. I had remembered reading Fantasyland by Sam Walker and it turns out that Walker was Barbarisi’s boss at the Wall Street Journal. I expected similar results: a writer gets involved in a gambling enterprise and gets in over his head. The book subverted my expectations in a couple of great ways to make it one of the more enjoyable sports books that I’ve read in quite a while.
It was reassuring to me that Barbarisi did not try to get into the debate on whether DFS is gambling or not. DFS used a loophole in the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 that shuttered online poker that allowed fantasy sports to continue. Although the main purveyors of DFS, FanDuel and Draft Kings, tried to show that DFS is a game of skill, there is plenty of luck involved. Barbarisi dispenses with this useless debate and knows that he is getting into gambling. As I have probably written before, the only difference between gaming and gambling (other than two letters), is that gaming is legal because the state gets its cut, while gambling is illegal and generally unregulated. To me, DFS was always gambling, but I didn’t have a problem with that. If I can play the lottery, why shouldn’t I be allowed to play DFS?
The rise of FanDuel and Draft Kings is the main thrust of the book and it is an incredible story. In just a few years, the two companies exploded on the scene and their commercials were hard to get away from for sports fans in 2015. Like all corporations, they were competitive and greedy. A more measured approach may have resulted in longer success, but they did seize the moment. Their quick success provided perhaps too much attention and they were hit by politics. For a time, DFS was banned in New York state. Eventually, the competitors merged and will likely be a sort of DFS monopoly at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Barbarisi gets heavily involved in DFS hockey. Like all gambling, there is a rush to the proceedings and Barbarisi is sucked in. After swimming as a fish for a short time, the author gets sage advice from some pros and becomes a shark. He believes he is not an addict, but a bit of success starts the gambling treadmill. A “bit” may be underselling the type of success that Barbarisi attains. During his rise, he shows how DFS sharks are created: they use computer scripts and algorithms to tilt the field in their favor. DFS sites allowed this type of behavior and, in some ways, encouraged it. More sharks meant more money.
There is just enough of Barbarisi’s story to balance the larger DFS story and the book flows along. I particularly enjoyed the fact that I had interacted with a number of players in the book when I was writing about DFS and an active member of the fantasy sports community. What separates this book from many books in the sports writing realm is its balance and sense of objectivity. It is an excellent example of journalism.
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