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Fantasy football’s psychological underbelly

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It was in a hospital room in December, with my 12-hour-old son and wife sleeping an exhausted sleep, with Monday Night Football muted on a tiny screen, with Mark Sanchez fumbling a snap in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, that I understood–for the first time–that luck would always have its say, and that I was a fool for ever thinking otherwise.

It was that fumble that knocked me out of the semifinal round of my first foray in an expert fantasy league–one with writers from TheFakeFootball.com. I had been so proud of my performance in that league, securing the No. 1 playoff seed against a murderer’s row of fantasy degenerates.

In another place, at another time, my soul, ego, and everything sandwiched in between would’ve been crushed into a fine paste when Sanchez lost the football and the Tennessee Titans recovered. Not there though; not in the hospital with my son and my wife, my life.

Fantasy football had so rudely reminded me that it was, indeed, a game, subject to the machinations of the uncontrollable, even for an obsessive like me. I told fantasy football to shut its mouth, and decided then and there to write a book about the maddening cross-section of games and skill and luck.

That book is called, “How To Think Like a Fantasy Football Winner.”

I stifled a laugh when Sanchez fumbled that terribly low snap from center Nick Mangold, wanting anything but to wake my sleeping newborn, Xavier, and his mother, who needed every second of sleep she could muster in our new, babified life. I had gone into that Monday night abomination of a game up by a healthy margin in my fantasy match-up, with my opponent having only the Titans defense left to play. The Jets were bad–heinous, in fact–so I supposed there was a chance they could feed the Titans defense a truckload of fantasy points that night. The odds were in my favor, however you looked at it.

I had done everything right that week, staring at a handful of gut-wrenching lineup decisions before 1 p.m. kickoff the day before and, in the end, making every correct decision on who to plug into my lineup, and who to bench. The real guys on my fake team performed well that week. Everything, in other words, had gone accordingly.

And I lost. By a single point.

The Sanchez fumble was a revelation of sorts, if revelations can stem from such a meaningless pastime. I talked to fellow fantasy writer and poker player Travis Rowe about the hospital room Monday night punch to the loins, and he suggested a couple books detailing how poker pros deal with the skill-luck dichotomy–how they manage what he called their “psychologically bankrolls” and found ways not to go insane when the nature of their game put them on the losing end, despite textbook play.

I devoured those poker books over the next month, reading some passages several times to make absolute certain that I understood the concepts, and how they might be applied to fantasy football. I found–as Rowe found before me–that I could simply replace “poker” with “fantasy football” and each sentence would make perfect sense.

I probably wasn’t the best candidate to write a book like, “How To Think” because my poker experience is limited to low-stakes casual games with friends and online showdowns with Internet trolls who go all in with a pair of threes.

I’m no shark: This much is for sure.

I did my best, however, to be the translator for the poker professionals who know the formula for long-term winning and how short-term results are subject to the pernicious machinations of good old Lady Luck. These poker mavens knew, as most fantasy footballers don’t, that if you’ve made the right decision, you’ve already won.

If your focus is to be as robotically objective as humanly possible, you will win over the long haul. If you’re obsessed with results, you’ll lose, and lose often. I promise.

Fantasy football, like poker, favors the player who makes the objectively correct decision and overrides luck over months and years in decades. With all the terabytes of player analysis and team breakdowns generated every day of every season–and offseason–the psychological side of fantasy is ignored. It is the deformed stepchild trapped in the attic of our hobby, our obsession.

I came up with chapters titled, “Fantasy Football Winners: a Crime Against Nature,” “Learning to Lose,” and “Selective Deception,” all drawing key lessons from the poker table on how to override your natural instincts to make psychologically comfortable decisions, understanding what we can learn from losing, and deploying unfiltered amorality–immorality, some would say–as a weapon against our fantasy football nemeses.

I plunged deeper into that psychological rabbit hole as winter turned to spring, hoping to get a grasp of what, exactly, determines decision making in our feeble little brains. What I found from research papers published by myriad universities and think tanks was a treasure trove of useful, actionable information detailing why people make less-than-optimal decisions.

I penned an entire chapter–my favorite chapter–on how our amygdala (lizard brain) can absolutely wreck objective decision making with the emotional memories it stores. Neuroeconomists–people who study the brain’s impact on economies–provided invaluable insight into how corrosive fear can be on a person’s ability to make rational choices.

The same fear-based decision making that wrecks economies in times of panic and crisis also ruins hundreds of thousands of fake football teams every season. That sounds sensational and overwrought, I know, but I believe it to be true.

“How To Think” doesn’t just provide a review of psychological literature on the brain’s decision making processes, it provides a translation for how and why these scientific findings should matter to fantasy football owners who pour untold hours into managing their teams, only to undermine said teams with disastrous decision making.

My dark side–the side that plays fantasy football–didn’t want me to publish “How To Think Like a Fantasy Football Winner” because I rely on other’s horrendous decision making every season. I know what that looks like because I, as you might’ve imagined, have made my fair share of god-awful choices in managing my various fake teams. Spending the better part of four years pretending I could manipulate luck and make decisions based on terror of making the wrong choice, I’m more than clued into how a fantasy football loser thinks. I’ve lost fantasy games and fantasy leagues in every way imaginable.

I’ve been to Fantasy Football Hell.

The flames of that special degenerate hell licked at my feet the day my son was born, as the Jets’ botched center-quarterback exchange cost me a chance to play for a championship I could taste. I was calm, almost serene, in knowing that I had done everything I could to win that fake football match-up. I had pushed in my pile of chips with two kings in my hand and another on the river.

My opponent had trip aces. And that was OK.

Purchase “How To Think Like a Fantasy Football Winnerby C.D. Carter.