Poker Lessons, Applied to Fantasy Football: Learning to Lose


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You’re going to lose.

It’s what happens after the losing that counts.

It’s a brutally important truth in any competition with luck baked into its innards, and it’s one you should accept, especially in fantasy football, and especially if you value your mental health.

You’re going to lose, no matter how many hours you pour into your research and analysis, no matter how much All-22 footage you watch, no matter how many instructive Twitter exchanges you have in a day or week or month. All that work could bring you a whole armful of fake football titles over the years, but along the way to collecting those trophies and cash deposits and satisfaction in knowing your arch nemeses have met their fantasy demise, you will lose.

You’ll lose in ways that rip your beating, bloody heart straight from your chest. You’ll be blown out, dismantled, humiliated. You’ll make lineup mistakes that haunt your Sunday night nightmares.

You’re going to lose. Let that wash over you.

How To Think Like a Fantasy Football Winner

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The best, most obsessive poker players preach this ugly reality, making it a part of their mental training for the game they love. In “Poker Winners Are Different,” a tome by Alan Schoonmaker, an authority on poker psychology, readers are encouraged to embrace the inevitable losing that can’t be eliminated in a game sometimes determined by the dumbest of luck. Bad beats are part of the game, Schoonmaker writes. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll improve. If you simply replace the word “poker” with “fantasy football,” Schoonmaker’s book reads like a psychological tip sheet for fantasy owners.

There’s a way to lose productively. Understand what you’ve done wrong, which fantasy football players you’ve overvalued and undervalued, which waiver wire gems you should’ve snagged the previous Wednesday, and which weekly matchups were ripe for exploitation. To fail at this is to never improve.

Fantasy Football Winners Are Different

Winners are different, Schoonmaker explains, because they don’t come unraveled when they find themselves on the losing end, and, most importantly, they resist the natural urge to retreat to a sort of competitive comfort zone, they deny their long-held illusions, and they embrace a model of almost robotic objectivity fueled by doing whatever it takes to win, to gain an edge, any edge.

They lose and they correct. It’s perhaps the most important lesson, at the poker table or on the make-believe gridiron.

Probably you think you play fantasy football this way: With cold efficiency, an unfeeling killer turned loose on your league of unsuspecting amateurs. Maybe you do, but I know from countless hours on the Twitter Machine that many owners – I dare say the vast majority — fight to keep their illusions about players and strategies firmly intact. They lose and they don’t correct. They blame luck. They blame fantasy writers. They blame the weather or a bad bounce or a bad call. Never themselves though – the guilt never falls on them, and no corrections are made. They stay the course, however flawed.

These fantasy owners never change. They draft a player because said player performed admirably for their fake football squad last year, if only for a few games. They roll out the same underperforming quarterback week after week, willfully ignoring better options on the waiver wire because this must be the week the signal caller breaks out. They draft quarterbacks early because that’s what they’ve always done. They always play a running back — even a middling one — in the flex spot because they’ve never done it any other way. They don’t use a tight end and wide receiver from the same team because they never have, and they’re not about to start. They turn down a juicy trade because they couldn’t bear to bid adieu to their hometown hero.

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If you play this stupid little game casually, this approach works for you. And that’s OK. In fact, I envy your perspective. If, however, you play fantasy football for no other reason than to win money and the accolades that come with championship crowns, it’s high time to adopt Schoonmaker’s literary slap in the face.

“Losers respond primarily to their natural urges, especially their desire to be comfortable and to preserve their cherished illusions. Because winners are so intensely competitive, they resist their natural desires and do whatever it takes to maximize their edge. … They frequently ask themselves, ‘What is really happening? Why is it happening?’ … Instead of relying on first impressions and instincts, [winners] constantly seek new information and feed it back into their mental computers. They keep their minds open so they can process that information well.”

Don’t Close Your Mind To Fantasy Football Facts

Closing your mind to contradictory information: I’ve been guilty of this mortal fake football sin, as have you. The easiest person to lie to, as you may know, is yourself. Fantasy footballers concoct and maintain these lies for self-preservation – to embrace your own failings is painful, to lay the blame squarely on your own shoulders is devastating, and too much for many to absorb. This sounds melodramatic, I know, but take a look at your Twitter feed on a Sunday night and watch the string of angry, bitter, delusional tweeps looking for anyone to blame for their fantasy failings. These very owners, protecting their fragile egos from the blow of objectivity, will never change the way they approach the game because they don’t acknowledge their own missteps and deeply flawed strategies.

I’m not preaching from on high here. I’ve made these mistakes in a vain effort to make myself feel better about myself. Below is an excerpt from “Poker Winners Are Different,” one that exposes a hideous little reality about poker (and fantasy football): We don’t acknowledge our mistakes, and therefore don’t make necessary strategical changes because we are so hopelessly invested in the game. Our sense of self is tied to the performances of our fake football lineups, a decidedly unhealthy approach that must be avoided, for the sake of your emotional stability and your fantasy success.

“No matter how realistic you try to be, you will occasionally make these costly mistakes because luck’s short-term effects let you delude yourself about your abilities. You can take credit for your successes and blame luck, opponents’ mistakes, and other factors for your failures. You want to think well of yourself. The more your self-esteem depends on [fantasy football], the more likely you are to deny reality about yourself.”

Banish the chains of your well-constructed illusions, of the subjectivity that binds you, and approach your weekly decisions with objectivity, like the world’s most dominant poker players.

I lose, you lose, we all lose, even the best of us. In the wake of that losing, don’t lash out, don’t deflect the blame, and please don’t berate fantasy writers and rankers, most of whom toil for free, and out of love for the game.

It’s your team. It’s your fault. You’ve lost. Now go fix it.

This article is an excerpt from “How To Think Like a Fantasy Football Winner,” available on iTunes, Amazon, and the Nook Store.

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C.D. Carter Fantasy Football Analyst
C.D. Carter is a reporter, author of zombie stories, writer for The Fake Football and XN Sports. Fantasy Sports Writers Association member. His work  has been featured in the New York Times.