On Monday, October 31, 1994, American Eagle Flight 4184, en route from Indianapolis to Chicago, crashed into a soybean field. The plane hit the ground with such extreme speed that it didn’t even explode. Reportedly, it more or less disintegrated. Everyone on board died immediately upon impact. The exact cause of the crash is unknown, but the probable cause was ice. In flight, the plane encountered freezing rain, which it stayed in longer than it ordinarily would have because of a weather delay at O’Hare International Airport. The ice buildup on the plane caused vital equipment to malfunction, and the plane quickly spun out of control and fell from the sky. In a settlement, a then-record $110 million was given to the families of those who died in the crash. One of the deceased was a young academic named Bill Readings.

This is the 21st installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation.  

The University — in Ruins

At the time of his death, Readings was nearing the completion of a book that would be finished and edited posthumously by his colleagues and published by his estate in 1996. Released by Harvard University Press, the book was entitled The University in Ruins, and it is one of the most important studies of the institution of academia in the last 20 years. The book was so popular that by 1999 it was in its fourth printing — which is the academic equivalent of being a New York Times bestseller.

In his book, Readings examines the system of the University and the impact made upon it by “Americanization,” globalization, corporatization, bureaucracy, the nation-state, modernity, “posthistoricism,” culture, and above all “excellence.” In Readings estimation, whereas the University in former years believed its mission to be the maintenance of western society via liberal education, now . . .

The University is becoming a different kind of institution, one that is no longer linked to the destiny of the nation-state by virtue of its role as producer, protector, and inculcator of an idea of national culture. . . . For its part, the University is becoming a transnational bureaucratic corporation . . . [that] focuses upon the administrator rather than the professor . . . and figures [its] tasks in terms of a generalized logic of “accountability” in which the University must pursue “excellence” in all aspects of its functioning.

In short, the University is now driven less by reason and the quest for wisdom and more by the market and “The Pursuit of Excellence.”

Per Readings, the result of this increased focus on excellence at the expense of culture is that “what gets taught or researched matters less than the fact that it be excellently taught or researched.” Additionally, in such an environment the word “excellence” has become vacuous in that it now “no longer has a specific content.” Because the word can be and is applied to everything within the University setting, it means nothing. “Excellence” has become the University mission and motto, but no one knows what it means or how to accomplish it.

The process by which “excellence” has been emptied of significance Readings refers to as “dereferentialization,” in that the word is losing specific referents: Whereas in the past “excellence” used to refer to the success of particular cultural goals, now it no longer refers “to a specific set of things or ideas.”

In an environment of dereferentialization, one can toss around words like “excellence” and sound as if one is actually saying something meaningful, but really one is being too vague to have said anything that isn’t, at best, bullshit (in the academic sense).

That was true of the University in 1996 when Readings’ book was published. And it’s true now of DFS.

DFS Dereferentialization

As a general DFS community, we have a problem: “DFS Dereferentialization.” The way that we talk is often far too loose. We say things without their meaning anything concrete. We operate on a basis of imprecision. We use adjectives instead of numbers. We say that a guy is “an excellent cash-game play” without saying specifically how he is excellent and what it means when we say “excellent.” We imply, knowing that a satisfactory and self-serving inference will usually be made by those who hear what we say, sometimes even by ourselves.

And just so that there is no ambiguity: In the previous paragraph, when I said “we” I was referring to the DFS community, not FantasyLabs. If we at FantasyLabs ever employ DFS dereferentialization, we are certainly not alone — this would be a quality not unique to us — but we do our best to avoid it in the first place. In part, that’s why we focus so much on numbers, which in DFS are the ultimate referents and sources of meaning. In creating numbers-based tools such as our Trends and Models and innovative metrics such as Plus/Minus and Bargain Rating, we focus on information that inherently shuns dereferentialization.

Although loose, non-committal language can be a virtue in particular areas of life — at work, on holidays spent with your in-laws, in conversations with people you don’t know, when serving on a jury (I imagine) — in DFS, where clarity and precision are important, loose language is an anathema. If we want to be the best DFS players possible, we must avoid the vague nothingness of dereferentialization.

The Referent is the Cash Line

DFS dereferentialization is about more than just how people speak. It’s also about how they think. In fact, thinking imprecisely is much more dangerous than speaking imprecisely.

Let’s return to the “this guy is an excellent cash-game play” example of dereferentialization. What is so dangerous about this statement is that it is untethered from what really matters in any DFS contest: reaching the cash line. In every statement and logical move we make, the ultimate referent must be the cash line.

For one, the statement doesn’t take into account how the player might fit into a larger lineup that cashes. And, more importantly, the statement lacks the specificity needed for someone hearing it to determine if it’s actually true.

What makes a guy “an excellent cash-game play” is if lineups with him have a better chance of cashing than those lineups without him. And to make that determination one must have a clear idea of at least three items:

  1. The range of fantasy points a player is likely to score in a slate.
  2. The range of fantasy points a lineup will need to cash in a contest.
  3. The range of fantasy lineups possible both with and without a player.

Individually, these items are all fairly simple to get our minds around. Collectively, they tend to give us problems. The issue with focusing on a particular player as “an excellent cash-game play” is that we tend to focus on No. 1 at the expense of Nos. 2-3, when Nos. 2-3 are really all that matter.

When we focus on individual players instead of lineups, we start making DFS decisions that aren’t directly tied to the outcomes of our contests. When we think about points per player without also thinking about necessary points per player per lineup per particular type of contest, we are thinking in a dereferentialized manner in that our logic has at best only limited relation to the cash line.

Reaching the Cash Line

Because every DFS sport is different, because every contest within each sport has its own rules and rake, and because platforms update their rules and rakes on a fairly regular basis, I can’t give firm guidance on what the exact cash line is for any given contest. I can say only that reaching the cash line is the ultimate focus.

Too often, the goal of reaching the cash line is subsumed under the secondary goal of putting players you like into the lineup. What should be the means is generally seen as the ends. The best way to reach the cash line is to think about the cash line. In building lineups, though, people often focus on players to the exclusion of larger concerns.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t focus on players. We should. They are the building blocks of well-constructed lineups. But if there’s anything I learned from playing with Legos as a kid, it’s that you won’t get very far in the construction process if you are putting pieces together without having an idea of what shape you want the pieces collectively to form and how big you want that shape to be. You can’t just put Legos together and hope that they form something that looks like it was designed with purpose. You need to have a sense of what you are building in order to use your individual pieces optimally.

Player analysis matters — knowing a player’s range of outcomes within any given slate is vital — but it matters only in that it helps us reach a projected cash line. Otherwise, player analysis is just an advanced form of DFS dereferentialization. And I was going to use another phrase that ended in the “-ation” suffix, but I know my editor.

Another Step in the Labyrinth

When you enter a contest, the first step toward victory is always determining the number of points a lineup will likely need to score in order to cash (or win). If you don’t determine that, you will be walking in a maze, not a labyrinth.

The number of points needed will vary depending on the sport, slate, contest type, etc., but usually past cash lines can serve as reliable guides. In general, the cash line will increase as you move from head-to-heads and 50/50s to multipliers and tournaments. Experience from playing in various contests will give you a better sense of what is required to cash in any given game.

In constructing lineups, the key is not to allow your contest experience to be forgotten in the quest for player excellence. The key is to embrace precision and shun DFS dereferentialization.

I would like to write a little more on this, but I can’t. Because I’m being called into court.

Because I have jury duty.

And I wish I were joking.


The Labyrinthian: 2016, 21

Previous installments of The Labyrinthian can be accessed via my author page. If you have suggestions on material I should know about or even write about in a future Labyrinthian, please contact me via email, [email protected], or Twitter @MattFtheOracle.