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Fantasy Land

Lawmakers are looking into the unregulated world of daily fantasy sports, and a professional player explains why it might be a good thing

I STEPPED outside my house in suburban Chicago one sweltering May morning as a stiff wind blew across my yard, and one thought crossed my mind: The baseballs are gonna be flying out of Wrigley today.

This was in 2011, when daily fantasy games were in their infancy, a hobby as niche as 19th-century stamp collecting. As a sports fan who'd always been obsessed with numbers, I first became intrigued when I saw a banner ad for Daily Joust, a website that allowed you to create lineups in various sports and win money based on the performance of the players you picked. I deposited $100, lost all my money over two months and had fun. I'm a CPA, with an accountant's cautious demeanor, but I'm also competitive: If others were making money off their sports knowledge, I wanted in too. I deposited another $200 and told myself that if I lost that, I was done.

That spring day four years ago the Cubs were playing the Astros, so I entered four lineups for a total of $40, loading them with players from Houston and Chicago. The Astros won 12--7, with second baseman Jeff Keppinger coming through for me by going 4 for 5 with a double and homer. I pocketed $1,800. Over the next several months I regularly entered lineups, and I saw my winnings rise to almost $50,000 by year's end. I was Justin the mild-mannered accountant to my coworkers and neighbors, who still know nothing about my other life. But my reputation as stlcardinals84—I'm the 45th-ranked pro on Rotogrinders—began to grow within the daily fantasy-sports world, which is now a multibillion-dollar industry.

Last week I began to wonder if the end times for that world have come, as news spread that New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman was launching an investigation into the business practices of DraftKings and FanDuel, the two largest daily-fantasy operators (and websites I play on). The cause for alarm was Ethan Haskell, a DraftKings analyst who during Week 3 published an article that included a pregame listing of NFL players with their ownership percentages. That led me and most other pros I know to believe that Haskell had the information before it was public, which he then could have used to his advantage. Haskell won $350,000 on FanDuel that week, and our eyebrows rose. But we didn't know how big a deal it would become.

When the national media pounced on the story—The New York Times called it a "major scandal"—and politicians lined up with their pitchforks ("There's absolutely scandalous conduct taking place," Senator Harry Reid said), there was no denying that it was a horrible week for the industry, even though DraftKings and FanDuel cleared Haskell of wrongdoing. (I'm inclined to believe them, but, I, like many fellow pros, would be interested in seeing the results of an outside investigation.) In reality this moment was inevitable—at some point, someone was going to take a closer look at this unregulated business—and ultimately it will be a good thing. At the least it will be a lesson to DraftKings and FanDuel, companies now valued at more than a billion dollars each: If they have enough money to inundate the airwaves with ads, they should have enough people keeping tabs on the games to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Daily fantasy should be legal—but it also needs to be regulated.

The fear among players is that new rules will be introduced by people who don't understand the industry, who characterize daily fantasy as gambling. There are elements of gambling in it, no one can deny that. But the comparisons between the Haskell leak and an insider-trading scandal reinforce the idea of daily fantasy as more than a dice game. The stock market is a perfect parallel; I always think of my player ownership as shares. The game rewards quantitative reasoning, strategy and also the hours I spend every night scouring the Internet for tidbits (a coach's comment may give some insight into a player's playing time, for instance) and staying on top of late-breaking news that may affect a lineup. I feel as if I'm in control of the money I'm playing with, which I don't feel when I'm staring at the board at a Vegas sports book.

Part of the Lotto-like image, perhaps, derives from those incessant ads, in which bros high-five a field goal, talking about how they flipped $2 into $1 million. The stories of those million-dollar winners turn heads, but there are more people like me that you never hear about. I've been steadily earning more every year, and so far this year I've made more money—the low six figures as of last weekend—from fantasy sports than from my CPA job.

Now that the rival companies are working together for the first time—both have banned employees from participating in paid games—I am optimistic that the industry can police itself so that outsiders won't need to get involved. I'm setting a lineup today, tomorrow and hopefully the day after that, too.

After last week, though, I'm also keeping my day job.

I put in another $200 and told myself that if I lost it I was done.


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