How former horseplayer Garett Skiba won $1 million betting golf

The winner of the $1 million DraftKings World Golf Championship on why he quit betting on horses and what the industry needs to learn from Daily Fantasy Sports and others.

by Dean Towers

Long-time horseplayer Garett Skiba moved most of his play to the Daily Fantasy Sports (“DFS”) space a couple of years ago, focusing primarily on golf. This past weekend he reached the pinnacle, capturing the World Fantasy Golf Championship along with its $1 million first prize.

I contacted Skiba and he was nice enough to answer some questions regarding his pivot to DFS, gambling theory (and team or ticket making), handicapping, as well as his overall thoughts on sports gambling customer service versus what he experienced in racing.

Congratulations on this incredible accomplishment. Your winning team consisted of a mix of stars like DeChambeau and Spieth, with lower-priced alternatives like Sunjae Im. What type of strategy did you use? Is it important to handicap the opponents?

“In any zero-sum game (worse with high rake) trying to figure out what your opponents will do is pivotal to the process. Especially so with payout structures that are extraordinarily top heavy where the equity is tied up at the top, which is typically the case with DFS. Most DFS players have models where they will project the points a golfer will earn; Vegas odds being the greatest driver of these projections. Salaries for DFS golf are released on Monday and afterwards there are typically 2-3 golfers who will become ‘chalk’ as their salary is underpriced relative to the odds and thus projections.

“Going into the week given where the projected ownership stood, I figured players would be going more balanced — using combinations in the $8,000-$9,000 range rather than going up to the 10k+ salary golfers. Remember, with everyone using the same salary cap, you can end up with a lot of clustering when it comes to lineup builds which makes differentiation difficult. As such, I pivoted to a ‘stars and scrubs’ approach where I jammed in Spieth and DeChambeau, and then back filled with cheaper players who were likely to be lower owned, but who still have upside. Ultimately, I was giving up projected points in exchange for diversification, so I figured it gave me a better chance of winning if I was right, but also gave me a chance to finish last If I was wrong.”

Is this similar to the strategy you employed when playing the horses – either in tournament play or pick 5 or 6 betting? For the average horseplayer trying to hit more scores in serial bets in racing to become more profitable, do you have any advice, especially with things like betting value and bankroll management?

“I think part of the problem is trying to hit more scores instead trying to hit the RIGHT scores.

“There are absolutely parallels to horse racing when it comes to the concept of ownership. In any multi-race sequence, horses have two types of value:

Horse value or the chances of winning the race. The public is very good at picking out who will win and only getting better over time. Post time favorites approaching 40 per cent is evidence of this.

Payoff value or how much you benefit from your horse winning. The public is very poor at this concept with regards to horizontal (pick 4, 5 or 6) wagers. What horseplayers should be looking at is how can we maximize our payoff when we are right. We want to find situations where the ownership, or percentage of tickets in a pick “N” pool, are inflated relative to the actual probability of winning. Horseplayers should be attempting to put themselves in situations where they benefit from the errors of other players. This can be as simple as singling in spread races and spreading in single races.

“Losing is never easy and if you play the game with the highest EV (expected value) approach you will undoubtedly go through losing streaks/swings. Cashing tickets is a rush and feeds your ego through bragging rights, so really you have opposing ideas which conflict over the short term and long term. Over the short term, you can cash more by including more horses in a horizontal sequence. However, in the long term, that strategy will result in a lower and likely negative EV. The importance of bankroll management and playing in pools where you can withstand the swings is key. If you have a $1,000 bankroll, playing the Pick 6 daily is going to drain your bankroll prior to giving you enough shots to take advantage of +EV play.”

You have stopped gambling on horse racing for the most part. You’ve written that higher takeout and shorter fields (less value) as well as the “poor treatment of customers” was your main impetus to move to Daily Fantasy. Since the switch, how do you feel DFS companies have valued you as a customer? Do you believe horse racing can learn anything from them?

“It really is night and day when it comes to customer service. Even with some of the consolidation in the DFS space you have an industry that is constantly looking to develop players and invest in the long term. Granted, I play at a volume that gives me a dedicated host, but even at the lower volume levels you have daily rewards just for logging into the website. Racing, as you won’t be shocked to hear, is very much trapped in the stone ages. The web technology is beyond dated, the investment in the customer non-existent and the interest in growing the pie really is never considered.

“For example, just thinking about Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, the marquee live bankroll tournament. You would have a significant percentage of on-track handle generated from that tournament. Instead of premium seating reflective of their contribution to the sport/handle, these folks are seated in the lowest most unattractive venue that the Breeders’ Cup couldn’t otherwise monetize. The gambler is an afterthought rather than a priority. My guess that has to do with some of the economics with regards to revenue splits; a dollar wagered must be split, a dollar of seating or a craft beer may be not split with the horsemen.

“Regardless, it’s a situation where the writing is on the wall that future is indeed not bright. Tracks will continue to close, handle will continue to shrink in real terms, and I’m not sure what can be done at this point.”

I know you’ve tried everything under the sun in horse race gambling, from traditional handicapping to databases and computer handicapping and have had success. Now, over the past couple of years you’ve had some major scores in Daily Fantasy, culminating in Monday’s achievement. Was it easier for you to become a seasoned DFS player driving big handle, than it was for you to become an everyday horseplayer? Is the DFS community of businesses doing anything different as compared to horse racing?

“I’ve had some major scores in DFS and racing, but I’ve sure done my share of losing as well. I think people get so wrapped up in the red-boarding social media posting that they forget the months/years between big wins where the handle is still flowing, but the wins aren’t! I think as with anything new gambling wise, there is going to be a ‘tuition’ that you pay in the form of losing. It comes down to how you use that tuition period to improve your process; learning from your mistakes is a key determinant if you will be successful long term.

“I’ve always tried to continue to refine my process, look for edges and find additional data sources that could potentially add value to my process. My advice to anyone would be to never stop trying to improve, never rest on your success, continue to work to improve.

“In terms of the differences between the two businesses, the DFS community does a great job of helping players understand the nuance of the game with regards to concepts like expected value and ownership.

“While he has the bedside manner of Dr. Kevorkian, @insidethepylons on Twitter is 100 per cent right when he criticizes the racing talking heads in their approach. Racing analysts are always focused on ‘picking winners’ as if that is the goal. Yes, if you are marketing to the affluent boomer looking for laughs and to cash tickets, mission accomplished. However, zero attempt is made to appeal to those millennial types who trade crypto, NFTs and want to figure out an edge in what they are doing. Teaching ticket construction, the advantages to being contrarian and that cashing the right tickets is more important that cashing more tickets, is something that is truly lacking in the industry.”