“You know what you’re like? You’re like a pathetic gambler — one of these losers in Las Vegas who keeps thinking he’s gonna come up with a way to win at Blackjack. . . . I know less about women than anyone in the world, but the one thing I do know is that they are not happy if you don’t spend the night.
— George Costanza, “The Deal”

I know less about gambling, poker, and Vegas than anyone in the world. You should know that up front. Also, I neither know nor care what the differences are between “up front,” “upfront,” and “up-front,” but I’m about 72 percent sure that my usage of “up front” in the second sentence of this paragraph is correct, so we’re off to a not-horrible start.

Now that you know I know less than nothing about gambling, poker, and Vegas, you should check out my previous work on the topics:

Also, check out Ian Hartitz’s old school article on Vegas Score (a metric available to Pro subscribers within our Player Models). That piece probably offers more positive expected value than all of my Labyrinthians put together.

Now that I’ve hit my link quota, let’s proceed. This piece is (loosely) about starting hand selection in poker, variance, and daily fantasy sports.

Starting Hand Selection

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more, so — true to form — I’ve recently been pretending to read a lot of books. (If you can’t lie to yourself, to whom can you lie?) That said, I could pretend that this weekend I read Hold ’em Poker for Advanced Players while my wife was out of town, but we’d all know that’s a lie.

According to an article written by someone who’s probably read more of that book than I have, David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth — who are probably important poker players; what the f*ck do I know? — start the book by discussing starting hand selection.

(I just googled Sklansky and Malmuth. It’s confirmed: They’re important poker players. Sklansky also might be on the faculty at Stanford Law School. I’d know for sure if I cared enough to click on a couple of links and compare head shots of two old guys who probably don’t look anything alike.)

As I understand it, starting hand selection is basically as simple as “I have two aces; I should probably play,” and “I have seven-two unsuited; I should probably fold.” That’s reductive, and I might be wrong about the particulars of those card combinations, but you get the idea. In general, it’s not hard for poker players to know once they’ve seen their cards for the first time if they should play or fold.

Of course, what players know and what they do often differ — regardless of whether they’re playing poker, DFS, the awesome Harry Potter board game I just bought, etc. People don’t always act rationally.

Contest Selection

Starting hand selection is applicable to DFS through its resonance with contest selection. Over the long term — and maybe even in the short term — someone is likely to lose in poker if (s)he chooses to play low-percentage hands and fold high-percentage hands.

The same principle is true in DFS: If someone sucks at selecting contests, that person will likely be a DFS loser. Here’s (some of) what I wrote about cash game and guaranteed prize pool selection about 11 months ago in my Labyrinthian on the process of not being awful at DFS (“which is still worth a read,” said the guy who wrote the piece):

Selecting the Cash Game Contests

This point is applicable to everyone, but it’s most applicable to less-experienced players: You need to play at low denominations when possible so that you avoid getting slayed by randomness and/or superior players.

If you have $20 to play in cash games, you should seriously consider playing all of that in $1 contests. You’ll be less likely to suffer massive losses that way. For one, the level of competition at lower denominations isn’t quite as intense. Secondly, the law of large numbers will give you something of a buffer.

Also, you might want to play in only head-to-head games. If you play in H2Hs and your lineup scores in the bottom quartile, then you will cash in roughly 25 percent of your contests. If, though, you are playing in some 50/50s or double-ups, then you will probably cash in none of your contests, because you will be nowhere near the cash line in contests with a slightly expanded field.

Selecting the Guaranteed Prize Pools

In general, you also might want to consider playing at a lower denomination in GPPs. Again, the competition will likely be easier. Additionally, if you are paying less money per GPP lineup, then you can afford to enter more lineups into GPPs — and, with our Lineup Builder, you might want to create as many lineups as possible and mass/max-enter a GPP if that fits within your bankroll management practices.

With more lineups in a GPP, your odds of winning go up dramatically, because you have more opportunities to go against the field and create unique lineups that distinguish themselves in increasingly inventive and contrarian ways. When you enter many lineups, your odds of winning don’t merely increase in an additive fashion. Your odds increase at an exponential rate.

So instead of entering one $20 lineup in a larger GPP and competing against players who are among the best in the industry, you could enter 40 lineups into a smaller GPP (at $0.50 per lineup) and have a better chance of winning because you have more lineups and are playing against opponents whose skill level is closer to your own.

All of that might seem obvious — just as it’s obvious that someone should play two aces and fold seven-two unsuited (I think?) — but we don’t always do what’s obvious.

Why is that? Sometimes we get tilted. In other words . . .


To know if you’re objectively good at poker, or DFS, or sex, or writing, or anything else, you probably need to do that activity thousands of times — in some cases tens of thousands of times — in a variety of contexts.

If I were a pervert, I’d tell you that this is how I objectively know that I’m an all-time great at doing the thing that Costanza once did with a Glamour magazine. I’ve done it thousands of times in hundreds of locations in the presence of millions of people — and I’ve never failed to leave at least one person satisfied. But I’m not a pervert, so I won’t tell you that.

(Also, that last paragraph is probably evidence that I’m not funnier than most people.)

Some people play poker or DFS or my Harry Potter board game like jackasses simply because they haven’t played enough to know that they are actually better or worse than variance has led them to believe. Perhaps some people fold good hands or bypass optimal contests because in their limited experience — which could still extend over a not insignificant sample — playing those hands or contests hasn’t been productive. Similarly, maybe people play poor poker hands or suboptimal DFS contests because they’ve been inordinately lucky in the short term by winning in those situations.

Variance doesn’t always explain why people behave irrationally — there are lots of potential biases that can come into play — but the consequences of variance are often underappreciated. It’s possible that you are better or worse at DFS than you think simply because you haven’t played enough contests and lineups.

When we’re on the sea of variance, how do we find our bearings? By relying on not the subjectivity of personal experience but the objectivity of truth and data. By using the Trends tool to do as much research as possible. By consuming the content of experts (such as Jonathan Bales and Peter Jennings) to learn how players with success across tens of thousands of contests and lineups think.

From a Black Swan perspective, we can benefit from randomness, chaos, etc. — we can leverage variance via contrarianism — but variance can also harm us if we don’t account for it.

Variance can be a virtue, but logic, research, and discipline are more important — assuming (of course) that you’re not betting the majority of your money on what happens in the short term.

Contests ≠ Lineups

Here are a couple more thoughts about variance and how it relates to poker and DFS.

Although it’s perhaps easy to think one hand in poker is analogous to one contest in DFS, it isn’t — especially in cash games, which can be destroyed when macro variance strikes. Because most people play the same lineup (or maybe the same three lineups) in all their cash games, the proper analogy would be someone playing the same hand (or small set of hands) on 50-200 different poker tables all at the same time. If ‘variance’ strikes and the lineup (or hand) is horrible, it’s not as if someone is in a position to benefit much from variance.

In multi-entry GPPs, however, we find an analogy that works. A GPP is like the poker table, and the lineups are like all the hands played at the table. The more lineups you play across as many GPPs as possible, the more accurately you’ll be able to gauge your skill level. Not only will you theoretically be in a position to benefit from micro randomness, but you also will have played enough metaphorical hands to know (regardless of macro variance) whether you’re a good GPP player.

It’s clear that contests and lineups are not the same, but as they relate to variance some people underappreciate what the distinction means.

A Conclusion?

I originally planned to end this piece by typing a humorous anecdote about a ‘Glamour adventure’ of mine as a young(er) man, but I’ve decided not to: My time could be better spent doing something else with my hands.

The Labyrinthian: 2017.27, 122

This is the 122nd 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. Previous installments of The Labyrinthian can be accessed via my author page.