'How Fantasy Sports Explains World'
AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. The following is excerpted from his new book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World." Copyright 2011 by AJ Mass, Reprinted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing. All rights reserved.
Before I started writing about fantasy sports for ESPN, I slapped the cards in Atlantic City as a professional dealer.
On December 24, 2003, I reported to work at Bally's as scheduled and saw I was likely in for a very long, very dull day. I was scheduled to man the Big Six. This is the worst spot in the casino, and the computer-generated schedule had given me the short straw. You're by yourself, standing in front of a giant spiked wheel that would make Pat Sajak green with envy. On it are pictures of different denominations of currency. Players can place a $1 chip on the glass table in front of them, selecting the denomination of their choice; and if the wheel stops on that value, they win that amount. If not, they lose.
Brain surgery it isn't, but unfortunately, due to the fact it is one of the only games in the casino you can play for a single dollar, it can draw a huge crowd that never thins out. Most of the folks attracted to this game have little to no gambling experience, but at the asking price, they typically play the game just to be able to cross "gamble at a casino" off their personal bucket list. Of course, few of these kinds of people grasp the fact that the reason George Washington happens to come up far more than, say, the more lucrative Andrew Jackson, is not because the game is "rigged" or that the dealer spinning the wheel is "cheating" but for the far more mundane reason that there are simply more pictures of our first president on the wheel.
Eventually, though, even the densest of minds catches on, and they begin to grasp that this game has some of the worst odds for the gambler in the entire casino, as well as the lowest payouts. Once that genie is out of the bottle, you may well spend the rest of your shift without a single customer bothering to come your way. In short, it's a case of feast or famine, and either way you end up wanting to shoot yourself by the time your shift is over.
I thought I got my reprieve when my reputation earned me a special assignment from Richard, my pit boss. I was to deal Three Card Poker to Allen Iverson and his family.
Boy was I ever wrong.
The first thing you notice about Allen Iverson in person is his impressive size. On the basketball court, he appears so small, but that is an illusion. Iverson is listed as being an even six feet tall, and perhaps that's generous. But if you took the press guide at its word, this still made him the shortest member of the Philadelphia 76ers by a good four inches. Considering that there were many NBA players at the time who were seven feet or taller, Iverson was frequently dwarfed on the basketball court by men over a foot taller than he.
Sitting at the Three Card Poker table, however, he was a sight to behold. His hair was pulled back in his trademark cornrows, with a sideways baseball cap atop his head. Even wearing baggy sweats, you could see how chiseled his physique was. Make no mistake, this was a professional athlete. And after a brief chat with the casino host, who was there to cater to his every whim, he was ready to gamble. Before too long he was doing so with such gusto that I feared for my safety.
"Gimme my [expletive] money!"
WHO'S IN CONTROL HERE?
When you're playing a game like Three Card Poker, where you really have no decisions to make -- you either have a higher hand than the dealer or you don't -- ultimately you have no control over the outcome.
The same holds true for fantasy sports. Sure, you have a chance to set your own lineups and select the athletes you believe give you the best chance of winning, but once the games themselves begin, you become simply a spectator, hoping for the best.
However, sometimes the players themselves are not truly in control of their actions. Case in point: Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who was on his way to the end zone for an uncontested touchdown in Week 11 of the 2009 season against the New York Jets, when he suddenly dropped to one knee at the 1-yard line so that his team could run out the clock before kicking a game-winning field goal. While the move made perfect sense in "real football," it created quite the uproar in fantasy circles.
In fact, by ESPN.com estimates, approximately 10,000 fantasy owners on its website lost that week's matchup because of Maurice Jones-Drew's action, including Maurice Jones-Drew himself.
At a postgame news conference, Jones-Drew explained, "Sorry to my fantasy owners. I apologize. I had myself [starting in fantasy] today. It was a tough call, but whatever it takes to get the victory, that's what counts."
So why did he do it? Well, because he's a professional football player, and his coach told him to. That's why. If he had scored the touchdown against his coach's wishes, there would have been hell to pay. So just like you, the fantasy owner, Jones-Drew really had no control over his performance on that play -- much like a blackjack dealer at the casino who has no choice but to hit on 16 and stick on 17 (as the house dictates), regardless of his/her own personal wishes.
Sure, there's the rare occasion when an athlete takes it upon himself to do something completely unorthodox, like when a cleanup hitter in baseball drops down a bunt when he sees the third baseman is playing way too deep, but more often than not, the player's free will in determining the ultimate outcome of your fantasy game is exactly the same as yours -- zero; the plays either get called for him, or they don't.
-- AJ Mass
His fist pounded down on the table with such force that I recoiled as though I myself had been struck by the blow. He rose from his chair, and his voice grew louder still, the alcohol on his breath just as capable of choking me to death even if his hands remained at his sides, which of course they did not.
"That's right! Gimme my [expletive] money!"
Again he pounded the table. An evil, self-satisfied chuckle sprung from his lips as I very carefully placed the $600 in question in front of him.
"Deal the cards, [expletive]! Let's go. Don't stop now. I'm on a roll!"
I finished collecting the cards from the table and placed them in the Shuffle Master automatic shuffling machine, then proceeded to dole out the cards for the next round of play. Allen Iverson rubbed his hands together in gleeful anticipation.
"Here we go!"
As the day wore on, I watched as AI imbibed a nonstop succession of Heineken and Hennessey, one following right after the other. He never once tipped any of the waitresses, and not a single one of them would return to serve him for a second time, due to the abusive language hurled in their direction by the table. And mind you, the other players at the table were members of Iverson's family! From right to left, there was his uncle George, a nameless pair of cousins, and then Iverson's mother herself seated next to him the whole time (but her baby could do no wrong in her eyes). She just sat there, massaging both the shoulder and knee that had been causing Iverson so much pain that he was unable to join the 76ers on their current road trip to the West Coast, which was why he was able to be at an Atlantic City casino in the midst of the NBA regular season.
As Iverson got noticeably drunker and drunker, he started to slur his speech. He also seemed to regress more and more into a childlike state. It was all I could do to keep from vomiting a little in my mouth as I listened to the following exchange between mother and son.
"How on earth did you get so lucky to have given birth to a man such as me?"
"I am blessed."
"You are blessed."
Now certainly, after several hours of playing, news that a celebrity of Allen Iverson's stature was playing at this particular table had spread throughout the casino. It was bound to have happened. Iverson certainly had come prepared, as he had three guys standing behind the table, making sure that nobody dared approach him for an autograph. And if somebody simply wanted to be a spectator to a few hands, and stood for just a little too long, they, shall we say, "politely requested" that they move it along.
Of course, I say three guys because the same three guys were standing there for around five hours. As it turns out, guy number 3 wasn't part of the entourage. And for whatever reason, despite his having stood there watching pretty much since Iverson sat down at the table, and having not once opened his mouth to utter a single sound, his presence suddenly infuriated Iverson.
"What you looking at? What the [expletive] you looking at, [expletive]?"
Suddenly, Iverson rose to his feet and approached guy number 3 and got as close to him as humanly possible without actually making contact. A staredown ensued, and you just knew the slightest spark would send this powder keg sky high.
I may not always like the players I draft, but if I want to win, I can't let that stop me from having them on my team.
Maybe you're very fond of animals. Perhaps you're even a member of PETA. But if you decided to pass on Michael Vick in 2010 simply because of his well-documented involvement in illegal dog fighting and his subsequent incarceration, and chose instead to draft rookie Tim Tebow, who spent his college summers doing missionary work at an orphanage in the Philippines instead of lounging on the sunny beaches of Florida, then you were really just shooting yourself in the foot. Vick ended up as the highest-scoring quarterback in ESPN leagues, with 300 fantasy points, while Tebow -- although he led the league in jersey sales -- finished well back of the pack at his position, tied for twenty-ninth place, with only 95 fantasy points to his highly regarded name.
The same would be true of drafting a player because he once signed an autograph for you, was genuinely nice when you asked him to pose for a picture with your kid, or perhaps even donated tons of money to a charity you believe in. Those are certainly reasons to admire said player, but it doesn't suddenly transform a third-string running back into Walter Payton.
In fact, to be fair to Allen Iverson, less than a year after my encounter with him in Atlantic City, he was honored by the NBA with their Community Assist Award for his work with Boys & Girls Clubs, as well as the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and several other charities that he supports year-round. If that was the only experience I had with Iverson, perhaps the glasses through which I view him as a person would be far more rose colored, but my evaluation of him for fantasy purposes would not change a bit.