This is the 161st 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.
Jonathan Bales is
the Chief Executive Officer of FantasyLabs a regular employee of The Action Network, and about a week ago he decided to get into the autumn mood and carve a pumpkin. It sucks. More importantly, he tweeted a picture of it along with an offer to anyone who follows his lame Twitter account.
— Jonathan Bales (@BalesFootball) October 16, 2017
Why am I telling you this? First, I want to remind you that Halloween is approaching and you have one week to carve a subscription-winning pumpkin. From what I’ve seen, the competition is fierce.
— SqareGrouper (@baconwood12) October 23, 2017
Second, I want to spend the next 1,000 words talking about pumpkins and DFS. This gave me an intro. You’re welcome.
The Next Christopher Guest Project, Untitled
Every October, thousands of people gather at various locations across the world to compete against and commune with each other by partaking in one of the oldest rituals in the history of civilization: The great pumpkin weigh-off. To these stewards of the squash plant cultivar, this harvest ceremony is a sacred observance. It’s not as if these pumpkin enthusiasts show up at random fall festivals and say to themselves, “Hey, it’s a good thing I just happen to be hauling some huge produce in my truck: #BlueRibbonLife.” These disciples of Ceres are serious. They attend these weigh-offs the way that Bales and Peter Jennings (CSURAM88) attend live DFS finals — except sometimes these people win.
If in a few years Christopher Guest’s IMDB page reads . . .
- Punpkin Pies (2020)
- Mascots (2016)
- For Your Consideration (2006)
- A Mighty Wind (2003)
- Best in Show (2000)
- Almost Heroes (1998)
- Waiting for Guffman (1996)
. . . it won’t be a surprise. These people should be mockumentaried — and I say that with all due respect.
The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth
There is a group of people who unironically call themselves “The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth.” They say that their mission is to cultivate the hobby of growing giant pumpkins throughout the world by establishing standards and regulations that ensure quality of fruit, fairness of competition, recognition of achievement, fellowship and education for all participating growers, and weigh-off sites. They set up and arrange weigh-off sites all over the world. Well, that’s not technically true. As far as I can see there are no weigh-offs in South America or Africa — but basically in any climate where pumpkins can grow to a disgustingly abnormal and inedible size there are people in that region who want to gather together and see whose gourd-like squash is the biggest.
One of these places is Altoona, Pennsylvania, which is where the Pennsylvania Giant Pumpkin Growers Association meets at 10 AM on the first Saturday of October each year. (People preregister for the event at BigPumpkins.com; I’m not joking.) On Oct. 1, 2005, history was made at this event when Larry Checkon — pumpkin royalty; a ‘pumpking’ (#NailedIt) — set the world record with a 1,469-pound piece of fruit. Naturally, at the end of the month he let the carver savant Scott Cully turn the pumpkin into the world’s largest jack-o’-lantern . . .
. . . because when you have one world record you might as well go for another one.
The Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off
While the local weigh-offs are great, they’re basically the minor leagues of the gourd game. The big event is The Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off, which is billed as “The Heavyweight Championship of Gargantuan Gourds.” Held on Main Street in Half Moon Bay, California . . .
. . . the weigh-off is a proud tradition 44 years running.
Here are a couple of notable items about the prize structure of the event.
- First place wins $7 per pound, whereas second place wins only $2,000; third, just $1,500. So if someone were to win the event with a pumpkin that was ‘only’ 1,000 pounds (which is small for this contest), the prize would be $7,000. As you can see — and I say this without making a pun — it’s a top-heavy event.
- In fact, it’s a really top-heavy event because there’s also a $30,000 mega prize for the pumpkin that breaks the world record.
Given the way in which this competition is set up, I’m sure you can see how it resonates with DFS guaranteed prize pools in general and probabilistic thinking and game theory in particular.
Turning the Pumpkin into Cinderella’s DFS Coach
Like a DFS website (such as DraftKings or FanDuel), the World Championship Weigh-Off is incentivized to pay an elevated sum to the winner. The organizers of the event are probably able to attract more participants by tapping into the upside-seeking nature of the human brain. Additionally, the $7/lb. prize for first place is enticing to participants because they’re able to win money in an amount directly correlated with the degree of their pumpkin-growing excellence. They are incentivized via this ‘skin in the game’ approach because their upside is capped only by their capability.
Further, it’s positive expected value (+EV) for the organizers to offer the $30,000 mega prize. It almost certainly draws more participants and probably more publicity to the event. Also, if the record-breaking pumpkin were presented there, it would enhance the prestige of the event and likely result in even more participants in future years.
As for participants, it’s +EV for them to ‘grow big or stay home,’ as it were. They are incentivized to be contrarian. There’s little benefit to finishing worse than first, which means pumpkin growers should experiment frequently in order to find a winningly unexpected combination of factors — not unlike a combination of players in a GPP lineup. For a contest like this, the traditional methods of growing pumpkins are unlikely to be satisfactory, since any improvement on one’s prior product is likely to be incremental. If, however, in experimenting one is able to discover a new methodology or technique, then the improvement could be exponential.
Basically, I’m talking about something akin to the pharmaceutical process of shotgunning. For a contest like this, it’s pointless to grow 1,000 pumpkins that are anywhere from good to great on the continuum. There’s much more value in 999 experimental failures and one massive success. People who participate in this contest aren’t just trying to grow huge pumpkins. They’re chasing Black Swans.
The State of Pumpkins and Sports Speculation in 2017
Remember that the world record in 2005 was 1,469 pounds. Just a couple of weeks ago (Oct. 9) a retired firefighter named Joel Holland won the 2017 World Champion Weigh-Off with a pumpkin that weighed an absurd 2,363 pounds — and he still didn’t break the world record, which was set the year before by Mathias Willemijns at the European Championship Pumpkin Weigh-off in Germany. His pumpkin weighed 2624.6 pounds.
Sadly, Holland’s pumpkin was merely the largest in North American history — but it netted him $16,541 (more than eight times what the runner-up got). How was Holland able to produce such a large pumpkin? Years ago he experimented, he found a process that yields excellent results, he won the event six times, he continued to experiment and tweak the process, and then he won a seventh time with his record-breaking product. And how was Willemijns able to grow a pumpkin large enough to break the world record? He had a lot of luck and mixed a lot of seeds, combining the 2145 McMullen seed with a variety of his own.
Here’s the point: Gourd-growing methodology has advanced so much since 2005, and that growth has been spurred by an experimental ethos and ‘shoot the moon’ mentality.
I’m willing to bet that 12 years from now sports speculation will only marginally resemble the present-day version. Books will change the way they take bets and the types of bets they take. Sharp market participants will change the way they handicap games and gather data. Forward-thinking and risk-seeking entrepreneurs will continue to revolutionize the industry and push it toward the future.
What works today will not necessarily work next year. Edges will disappear. Assumptions will dissipate. DFS cash lines will get higher and higher. The question is not whether these changes are good or bad. The question is whether you’re going to be someone who, in the new world of sports speculation, grows pumpkins in a +EV way.
It’ll help if you have a free Labs subscription.
The Labyrinthian: 2017.66, 161
Matthew Freedman is the Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs. He has a dog and sometimes a British accent. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he’s known only as The Labyrinthian. Previous installments of the series can be accessed via the series archive.