Poker Lessons, Applied to Fantasy Football: Deception

It was 60 seconds after Darren Sproles had been declared out with a broken hand that I committed, with admitted soullessness and black heartedness, to deceive my best friend.

Somewhere in the never-ending scroll of my roiling Twitter feed was the news: The Saints’ running back who had caught 38 passes in the season’s first seven games, was a surprise addition to the New Orleans injured list. That was noteworthy. A few minutes later, Sproles’ status became a three-alarm fantasy football emergency.

The scat back was declared out for up to six weeks, and the likely beneficiary of Sproles’ absence appeared to be Pierre Thomas, who had been relegated to a committee back role that had reduced him, once again, to a fantasy nonentity.

I sprinted from Twitterland and found Thomas, a lowly bench player with renewed value. He sat firmly on the roster of my best friend (we’ll call him Pat), who I had known since the brutally awkward days of middle school, through high school, through college, into our days as adults with mortgages and car payments and wives.

We played on our high school’s baseball team. We’ve played on the same co-rec softball team for the better part of a decade. Pat was a groomsman in my wedding. My son, when his gurgled coos become intelligible human words, will call him Uncle Pat.

None of that mattered in the wake of Sproles’ injury. I had information that he likely didn’t, thanks to my incessant monitoring of Twitter. I was ready and willing to trick Pat into a trade that would be – by no one’s definition – fair: A barely-useable wide receiver in exchange for Thomas, a guy who could have taken (but didn’t) a prominent role in the backfield of football’s most explosive, fantasy-friendly offense.

I smelled blood. I used information against my friend, as a weapon wielded like a barbed wire-covered club to his fake football face.

My realpolitik approach to this stupid little game – one that drew an epically furious and eminently deserved  response from Pat – reminded me of a quote I love dearly: “Poker is a game of misdirection, manipulation, and lies.” Barbara Connors, author of, said that, and nothing could be more brutally true.

Fantasy football is also a game of misdirection and manipulation, if your sole reason for playing is to win, whether for pride or cash-money. Owners who join leagues for strictly social purposes have no need for this dastardly approach, just as anyone who plays a monthly poker game as an outlet to talk and laugh and imbibe have no use for Connors’ approach.

In “Poker Winners are Different,” a book I’ve described as a mental training tool for fantasy owners and poker degenerates alike, readers are given nothing short of a manual for how to control information. The fantasy owner with the most accurate, up-to-date, objectively reported information is the owner with an edge on the comparatively ignorant  competition. The poker player who controls their expressions, their breathing patterns and interactions at the table, the one who gathers information from informal exchanges, the one who does not give away strategies and approaches, is the player securing an edge on the gal or guy to their left and right.

Collecting and processing information while giving away none of it is critically important in poker and fake football.

An obsessive in either game will never stop gathering and processing information, no matter how seemingly meaningless. The winner won’t share these tidbits with their league mates. The loser will give away their information edge, in one way or another, and pay a dear price.

And before you commit to deception as the centerpiece of your fantasy football philosophy, you need to be comfortable with the amoral nature of it all. You shouldn’t commit to deceit if you’re a functional person who prioritizes mostly everything before fantasy football. For degenerates like me, a comfort with lying and manipulation is essential.

“You must not just act deceptively. You must also feel comfortable about it. If you feel embarrassed, guilty, or ashamed, some perceptive opponents will see right through you. Others will just sense something is wrong and react in undesirable ways. … You must understand, accept, and act within the rules while protecting your secrets.”

In other words, decent people need not apply.

Liars and bluffers can stretch the limits of the required deceit, of course. Be judiciously deceptive. Trick your opponents when you have the most to gain. Otherwise, your reputation as a low-down weasel will be permanent, and even when you propose a fair trade, your inquiries will be summarily executed – the sentence of an indiscriminately deceitful fantasy football fiend.

Schoonmaker encourages his readers to “[make] sure that you are creating the right kind of confusion and that it doesn’t cost you more than you gain.”

Listen to him, kids.

Sitting across the table from a fellow degenerate, reading painfully obvious tells or listening to my opponent admit that he’d go all in if he had a set of any kind of card, or bow out if he doesn’t have a pair or an ace or a face card in hand, I gain a major edge. These things may be said between hands, amidst drinking and laughing and general jocularity at the poker table, but I file away every tidbit. I don’t feel bad about it either. I’ll be smitten to use this information against my opponent, the way I was borderline giddy to deploy my information edge against my best friend, Pat.

Bad Beats and Information Purges

Bad beat stories run rampant through fantasy football and poker alike. You see them on Twitter, on message boards, and league emails chains all season – owners detailing the heartbreak of a rival whose flex-spot running back scored not one, but two garbage time touchdowns.

You’ll read about fumbles at the goal line, about owners who bench a star running back mired in a slump, only to watch said stud go for 150 yards and a score. Fantasy football bad beat tales of unspeakable woe often include details on an owner’s decision making processes – a veritable lesson on how an owner thinks, which players he overvalues or undervalues, how conservative or risky he is in his lineup composition.

The information gleaned from these bad beat retellings give competitors an advantage when it comes times to bid on a free agent or to make a mid-season trade. Knowing your opponents’ decision making processes is, I think, just as important as fully understanding your own.

Take a tip from “Poker Winners Are Different” author Alan Schoonmaker, who offers a warning in his epic tome.

“When you tell a bad beat story, you gain nothing, but you can hurt yourself in one or more of these ways: You tell people how you think and play, you tell people how another person thinks or plays, [and] you appear weak and self pitying. … Smart opponents will understand and adjust to you, which is the last thing you want them to do. … You may tell a bad beat story to get sympathy, but poker players – especially winners – aren’t sympathetic people.”

Even for fake football mavens, owners who have raked in trophies and money over the years, learning the above lesson doesn’t mean they don’t relay information in other ways.

Critiquing a league mate’s drafting strategy or lineup choices is an all-too-common way to give away information and eat away at the edge you’ve worked oh so hard to get.

“Countless losers criticize other people’s play or suggest ways to improve it. Doing so can drive them away or cause them to play better. It may also tell other people how to play better and how you think and play. The smart player will use that information against you. When you’re playing, don’t criticize or give lessons.”

This might be hard for you. You think you’re good, maybe even great. You think you know things about players, coaches, trends, offensive schemes, weather conditions, the color of the kicker’s underwear. Your need to inform league rivals of your unmatched fake football genius is insatiable – it pours out of your gullet in a stream of uppity declarations meant to simultaneously inform and belittle, to build your self esteem while destroying your rival’s.

Don’t do it. You need to stop for two reasons: You’re being an ass, and you’re purging vital information about yourself and the players we study as if our very lives hang in the balance.

author avatar
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.