Ex-in­mate’s ‘sec­ond chance’ in­cludes $300K fan­tasy win

He pyra­mids a 25-cent wa­ger into a big pay­out on DraftKings in­ter­net site

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Jeff Barker

Ed­die Ry­bolt of­ten con­tem­plates the wild swings of his life — the home­less years, the ad­dic­tions and prison time and, fi­nally, how his luck one day turned on a dime. Or rather a quar­ter.

Paroled af­ter serv­ing three years on an at­tempted rob­bery con­vic­tion, Ry­bolt par­layed a 25-cent fan­tasy foot­ball wa­ger into $300,000, ar­guably be­com­ing Maryland’s best-known win­ner of the pop­u­lar, on­line daily fan­tasy games.

His vic­tory on the DraftKings site was im­prob­a­ble not only be­cause he has spent much of his adult life on the street, in half­way houses and in prison. A daily fan­tasy new­comer, he de­fied the odds by win­ning big with­out the aid of so­phis­ti­cated sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis.

While many of his top ri­vals run reams of Na­tional Foot­ball League data through com­put­ers, Ry­bolt uses his in­stincts. “I’m a di­nosaur,” he says. The mus­cu­lar, raspyvoiced man sits on his couch in front of a large-screen TV — of­ten tuned to the NFL Net­work or ESPN — por­ing over matchups on his phone and oc­ca­sion­ally star­ing out a win­dow onto Old Road Bay.

Across the wa­ter is Spar­rows Point, the site of the former steel mill that be­came a recla­ma­tion pro­ject — just like him.

“I never thought in a mil­lion years that I would be here at this place and time in my

life,” said Ry­bolt, 46, whose screen name is Rock­enRaven. “I should be dead.”

The rented home he shares with his live-in com­pan­ion and daugh­ters, ages 5 and 2, is filled with paint­ings and models of horses. While in prison, he was the first grad­u­ate of Sec­ond Chances Farm, a Sykesville re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gram al­low­ing in­mates to care for re­tired race­horses.

He was sent to prison af­ter a Har­ford County woman iden­ti­fied him as the hooded man who reached into her car win­dow on Hal­loween night in 2007 and tried to rob her of $45 as she was parked at a drive-through bank ma­chine with her two young chil­dren in the back seat, ac­cord­ing to court records.

The woman’s fa­ther told The Sun that she did not want to com­ment on Ry­bolt or the events that evening.

Ry­bolt, who said he was high on heroin and Xanax that night, pleaded guilty to at­tempted rob­bery. He was paroled af­ter three years and be­gan a land­scap­ing and pres­sure-wash­ing busi­ness that hires in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors with crim­i­nal his­to­ries be­cause Ry­bolt be­lieves they oth­er­wise strug­gle to get work.

He started com­pet­ing on DraftKings last sea­son, play­ing on a whim. The site, along with ri­val FanDuel, pop­u­lar­ized daily fan­tasy sports in re­cent years with ad­ver­tis­ing that caught Ry­bolt’s at­ten­tion.

Fan­tasy sports counts more than 57 mil­lion play­ers in the United States and Canada, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey this year by Ip­sos Public Af­fairs and spon­sored by the Fan­tasy Sports Trade As­so­ci­a­tion. The in­dus­try claims at least 200,000 Maryland play­ers.

Near the end of the 2015 NFL sea­son, Ry­bolt paid his 25-cent en­try fee and won a com­pe­ti­tion among thou­sands of play­ers, ad­vanc­ing him to a sec­ond con­test. His per­for­mance there qual­i­fied him to join 199 other fi­nal­ists at DraftKings’ $15 mil­lion cham­pi­onship. In Jan­uary, Ry­bolt ad­vanced to the fi­nal 10 in Los Angeles, fin­ish­ing fifth and earn­ing $300,000. The win­ner claimed $5 mil­lion.

Since the win, Ry­bolt and his story — in­clud­ing his jail time — have been pro­moted by DraftKings, which presents him as an un­der­dog.

“This is a story about re­demp­tion and sec­ond chances,” the Boston-based com­pany says on its web­site about the player.

DraftKings’ cus­tomers pay from 25 cents to thou­sands of dol­lars to en­ter var­i­ous com­pe­ti­tions tied to ac­tual NFL games.The prizes range from a few dol­lars to more than $1 mil­lion.

Act­ing as gen­eral man­agers, they se­lect their “teams” of real play­ers. The best play­ers “cost” more than the rest, and cus­tomers must keep un­der a fan­tasy salary cap pre­vent­ing them from se­lect­ing all prom­i­nent play­ers. Points are ac­cu­mu­lated — and win­ners de­ter­mined — based on play­ers’ sta­tis­ti­cal per­for­mances.

Be­cause there’s a lot to process, “I think the peo­ple that have the high­est re­turn are us­ing al­go­rithms to gen­er­ate their play­ers,” said Michael Lopez, a Skid­more Col­lege as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor who an­a­lyzes sta­tis­tics in foot­ball and other sports.

Suc­cess­ful daily fan­tasy par­tic­i­pants have used com­puter scripts al­low­ing them to make au­to­matic lineup changes — for ex­am­ple re­plac­ing in­jured play­ers be­fore games — in many en­tries a day, he said.

Ry­bolt’s as­cen­sion last sea­son came largely from pick­ing Danny Wood­head, an un­her­alded San Diego Charg­ers run­ning back se­lected by just 1 per­cent of the con­tes­tants on Dec. 20.

“It was a gut thing,” Ry­bolt said. “I said they’re go­ing to use him near the end zone a lot.

Wood­head scored four touch­downs against the Miami Dol­phins and his 36 fan­tasy points topped more es­tab­lished run­ning backs.

Ry­bolt “is do­ing some­thing that is smart,” Lopez said. “He’s pick­ing play­ers that a lot of oth­ers aren’t pick­ing. Your job is to beat other peo­ple. It’s the same thing with en­ter­ing a March Mad­ness pool. If ev­ery­body picks Duke and Ken­tucky, your strat­egy is to pick some­body else.”

In DraftKings pro­mo­tional videos, the heav­ily tat­tooed Ry­bolt is sur­rounded by gi­ant tele­vi­sion screens show­ing live NFL games as the cham­pi­onship com­pe­ti­tion un­folds. He stands and claps, pumps his fist and high-fives fel­low com­peti­tors. “Yeah, baby — that’s what I’m talk­ing about!” he shouts.

“If you were DraftKings, would you rather pro­mote this guy or the nerdy guy sit­ting at his com­puter 18 hours who is not even watch­ing the game but do­ing al­go­rithms and sub­mit­ting hun­dreds of en­tries?” said Gre­gory J. Matthews, a sta­tis­tics ex­pert at Loy­ola Univer­sity Chicago.

While it worked for Ry­bolt last year, it won’t for most peo­ple, Matthews said.

“It’s great for him, but how many other Rock­enRavens lost a lot of money?” he said. “They’re just over­matched.”

Founded in 2012, DraftKings has more than 2 mil­lion cus­tomers in 44 states, the com­pany said in a Jan­uary brief in a New York court case. Ev­i­dence sug­gests “that a small group of skilled con­tes­tants con­sis­tently win” daily fan­tasy, wrote DraftKings lawyers in the case.

In re­ply to Bal­ti­more Sun ques­tions, the com­pany said lots of “Ed­dies” win as well.

“Play­ers en­ter picks in a va­ri­ety of ways, and the way Ed­die en­tered his picks is not un­usual. In fact, we see that a lot amongst our win­ners,” DraftKings said in a state- ment. “As ev­i­denced by Ed­die win­ning, yes, play­ers of all skill lev­els can win in our con­tests. We know our busi­ness and con­tests will only con­tinue to be suc­cess­ful if ev­ery­one un­der­stands our un­wa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to a level play­ing field. “

The com­pany said it runs “be­gin­ner only” games for those who have played less than 50 games on the site and of­fers “a plethora” of games lim­it­ing the num­ber of in­di­vid­ual player’s en­tries.

In a Jan. 15 ad­vi­sory opin­ion, the Maryland at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice said daily fan­tasy sports may not be le­gal be­cause the is­sue was never re­ferred to a statewide bal­lot ref­er­en­dum — a pro­ce­dure re­quired un­der state law to ex­pand com­mer­cial gam­ing.Un­like some states, Maryland has not gone to court to try to halt the games.

DraftKings says its games are based on skill rather than chance. It’s an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion be­cause Congress in 2006 ex­empted fan­tasy sports from its on­line gam­bling ban on the grounds that they re­quired skill.

In July, Comptroller Peter Fran­chot pro­posed a se­ries of rules and re­stric­tions de­signed to en­sure daily fan­tasy sports are op­er­ated fairly in the state. The reg­u­la­tions will take ef­fect Oct. 24 un­less the Gen­eral Assem­bly’s Joint Com­mit­tee on Ad­min­is­tra­tive, Ex­ec­u­tive and Leg­isla­tive Re­view opts for fur­ther re­view. The reg­u­la­tions in­clude restrict­ing most play­ers’ max­i­mum monthly spend­ing to $1,000.

Ex­perts say daily fan­tasy sports can pose the same is­sues for some cus­tomers as casi­nos do for prob­lem gam­blers. The com­pe­ti­tions at­tract young, male sports en­thu­si­asts at risk for gam­bling ad­dic­tion, and the games fea­ture el­e­ments — such as big-money wins for small in­vest­ments — that can fuel bad im­pulses, said Jef­frey Beck, a gam­bling and ad­dic­tions coun­selor.

Ry­bolt said he didn’t spend more than sev­eral hun­dred dol­lars last sea­son on en­try fees and he’s spent his win­nings largely on busi­ness ex­penses and med­i­cal bills. One of his daugh­ters suf­fers from an eye con­di­tion.

While some might con­sider his $300,000 win his big­gest stroke of luck, Ry­bolt be­lieves it’s what hap­pened the night of the armed rob­bery.

Not only did it set him on the road to re­cov­ery from his drug ad­dic­tions, but the woman and her chil­dren nar­rowly avoided tragedy when she sped off onto Pu­laski High­way and al­most got hit by a truck.

Ry­bolt said he re­grets the in­ci­dent and is haunted by his mem­ory of the kids.

“I’ve pun­ished my­self more than any­thing,” he said. “I could have killed three in­di­vid­u­als.”

“It’s great for him, but how many other Rock­enRavens lost a lot of money?” Gre­gory J. Matthews, a sta­tis­tics ex­pert at Loy­ola Univer­sity Chicago

KIM HAIRSTON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Ed­die Ry­bolt found a bit of good for­tune af­ter he started play­ing fan­tasy sports last year. This year he won a $300,000 prize.

SCOTT OL­SON/GETTY IM­AGES

Ed­die Ry­bolt par­layed a 25-cent fan­tasy foot­ball wa­ger into $300,000, ar­guably be­com­ing Maryland’s best-known win­ner of the pop­u­lar, on­line daily fan­tasy games.

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