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Fantasy Football: Lest You Forget, It’s a Game

An excerpt from C.D. Carter’s book helps fantasy footballers deal with crushing playoff losses with reminders of how poker players handle losing.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady

Dec 8, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) reacts after a play against the Cleveland Browns in the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Poker players – the kind whose income takes a hit on an unlucky night – at least have the excuse of economic survival.

It’s beyond a game for them because the mortgage or the car note or the student loan payment might hinge on their winning and losing. Their ability to spot exploitable games, make rational decisions, and keep a level head is paramount in their quest for cash and their outrunning of the poorhouse.

You don’t have that excuse.

You want to win, as do I, and we’ll do anything to end the year atop the competition. I’d never begrudge a fantasy owner for taking a bad beat to heart. It hurts, I know – the sort of hurt that lingers when the memories of your best efforts fallen short creep to the forefront of your mind. The what-ifs come in relentless barrages, at night while you sleep a restless sleep, in the car in your slog to the office, or – let’s all be honest for a moment – in your place of worship.

Feeling inadequate is no fun.

Whether you’re committed to winning or simply having fun – or theoretical fun, as I don’t believe anyone can have fun losing – fantasy football is a game, just like horseshoes is a game, or Sonic the Hedgehog is a game, or Hungry Hungry Hippo is a game.

I don’t remind myself of this undeniable, if inconvenient, fact because I long to soften my stance on winning by any means necessary. Remembering that this is a game is not the psychological cushion it may appear to be.

I think it’s important to remember what a game is, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary. You may, in fact, want to memorize this definition and repeat it like an incantation in the moments before Sunday afternoon kickoff, when are your best laid plans are about to succeed or fail.

A game is “a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.”

Poker writers have spilt much ink stressing to their readers that poker is a game – yes, a game subject to luck’s whimsies – that should be accepted as it is, not how you wish it would be.

Games can’t be completely controlled. Luck plays a part, as vexing as it may be for those of us who spend untold hours chipping away at the edges of that luck, hoping that skill will prevail all the time, not just in the long run. It won’t – luck will determine short-term wins and losses. There’s nothing you can do to change that.

Remembering that fantasy football is a game should bring perspective on three fronts: every game is determined at least partially by factors outside of your control, your winning and losing does not determine your financial well-being, and there are more pressing things in life than fake football.

Your kicker missing a 50-yarder that would’ve sealed a win for your dynasty squad, believe it or not, isn’t the worst thing to happen to a human being today.

Donald Rumsfeld’s Advice for Your Fantasy Team

Losers, whether in poker or fantasy football, aren’t even aware of how detrimental it is to reject the effects of luck, to pretend these are easily controlled machinations. Like a poker player who refuses to accept the randomness of cards, the fantasy footballer who rejects the notion of succumbing to bad luck in the short run is doomed to thinking like a loser. This mindset effectively throws out responsibility for one’s decisions. This might help you sleep at night, but it’ll never improve your decision making, only erode your objectivity and undermine your fantasy success.

You can’t establish a winner’s mindset until you understand and accept that the best poker hands – and the best, seemingly unbeatable fantasy lineups – will lose. That keeper league team with three top-15 running backs? That team will lose. It might lose quite a bit.

Coming to terms with being far superior to your fantasy football league mates – out-drafting them, outwitting them, outthinking them – and coming out on the losing end is the first and most crucial step to absorbing the rest of poker’s applicable lessons.

Knowing that you’re going to lose, even after making the right decisions, is the essence of understanding that fantasy football is an uncontrollable game. ACLs will tear. Balls will take inexplicable bounces. Kicks will hit the upright, guys will fumble at the one-yard line, and lopsided scores will put fantasy studs on their team’s bench as coaches show their disdain for your fantasy team.

Where we go so terribly wrong is not necessarily whining about these unforeseen circumstances, but rather factoring them into our decision making equation. It’s an expected reaction among obsessives determined to take into account every possible scenario, but it’s foolish and, in many ways, arrogant.

Let’s let former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld chime in here.

“As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know,” Rumsfeld said during a February 2002 Defense Department briefing in a valiant attempt to explain away the absence of evidence linking Iraq’s government to the development and planned use of weapons of mass destruction. “We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

These tragically poetic words from a man trying desperately to fend off skeptics and critics who spoke above the pounding of war drums serve as a superb reminder for fantasy owners who think they have absolute control of the players on their teams.

What are our weekly “known knowns,” as Rumsfeld put it? Well, we know we know the starting lineups, the weather forecast, and general trends of teams and players headed into the day’s contest. We know what players and coaches said about the weekly game plan. That’s about it.

Now for our “known unknowns”: we think we might know a team’s offensive game plan headed into a Sunday afternoon. Local newspapers and national media outlets might report a new wrinkle in the previous week’s practices. Sometimes a head coach makes it easy on us and vows to force feed the ball to an underused player. We know we don’t know exactly how that player might be used. We’re aware, in other words, of our own ignorance.

It’s the “unknown unknowns” that wear down fantasy footballers’ sanity over the course of 16 weeks. We know a defensive coordinator promises to flood the middle of the field with cornerbacks and safeties to stop the Patriots’ tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. We think knowing this gives us an edge on our opponents.

Perhaps this gives a value boost to a New England wide receiver, you think, since the defense has already admitted to focusing on the Patriots’ tight ends. What you don’t know that you don’t know is that the team’s offensive coaches have installed a run-heavy scheme for that Sunday designed to exploit the opposition’s relatively small defensive personnel. It was the Patriots’ running backs who saw the spike in fantasy value that day, not the receiver you plugged into your lineup.

You’re not in the locker room, you’re not front and center at a team’s breakdown of game film, and you have no access to team employees who might be able to eliminate some of those dastardly unknown unknowns that wreak havoc in our little game.

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