Dave Loughran dropped out of Temple University and quit a once-fulfilling job to play daily fantasy sports full-time . (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Dave Loughran pushes another cigarette into the ashtray on the balcony and walks back into the glow of his 55-inch television, sliding the screen door shut.

His girlfriend, Justine Porretti, sits on the couch, her eyes moving from the study packets on her lap to the Sunday night National Football League game and back again. Loughran, 28, admires his new television, purchased the previous week, and the brilliant New York Giants blue and gleaming San Francisco 49ers gold. “Sometimes if I have a good weekend,” he says, “I like to treat myself.”

Porretti, 27, looks up. “I never get treated,” she says playfully.

Wait. What about the reclining couch she is sitting on? The iPad mini on the cushion beside her? The two-bedroom apartment they live in while she studies to become a dental hygienist? As much grief as Porretti gives Loughran for playing daily fantasy sports, his skill in the wildly popular games — a phenomenon in which an estimated 56 million people compete for cash prizes by filling out lineups within a set budget — bought almost everything here. He believes it someday will allow them to fulfill their dreams.

Last year, Loughran dropped out of Temple University and quit a once-fulfilling job to play daily fantasy sports full-time. It has been, in his case, a lucrative endeavor: He says his initial $80 investment has ballooned into winnings well into the six figures. But it also has placed him and Porretti at the mercy of an industry under increasing fire from critics, investigators and lawmakers who contend that the games are actually gambling. Still, an exemption in the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, passed in 2006 at the height of the online-poker craze, has allowed daily fantasy to flourish — at least so far.

Loughran, the speculator of his household, believes there is nothing to worry about. Porretti, a pragmatist with her eye on the future, goes along with her boyfriend but can’t help thinking it’s only a matter of time before the bottom falls out.

“I constantly worry,” she says. “But I’m getting better.”

DraftKings and FanDuel, the daily-fantasy titans, have spent more than $205 million this year on a constant stream of advertisements that suggest, essentially, that anyone who sets a lineup can win a significant amount of money. Sure enough, lineups set by casual players can and do win. But it’s the pros, such as Loughran (better known in the fantasy community as “Loughy,” his online handle), who regularly risk thousands of dollars and play dozens of lineups each week in hundreds of games. Loughran sees daily fantasy as a new form of day trading: If enough time and research merge with luck, he will almost never lose.

Daily fantasy sports games allow fans to pay an entry fee to build a team of players and compete in real-money contests determined by their players’ performance — the outcomes of games don’t matter. Unlike traditional fantasy sports leagues, in which teams of players accumulate points over the course of a sport’s regular season, daily fantasy sports contests can last as short as a few hours.

This Sunday, Loughran, who during the first week of the NFL season won $79,000 on a single ticket, had 46 lineups in play — with nearly $6,000 at stake. A week earlier, still riding the thrill and $20,000 profit from the previous weekend, he wandered into Best Buy and left with the TV. Porretti, in her final year of dental school, came home, and there it was.

Daily fantasy sports sites like FanDuel and DraftKings are growing in popularity, but their legality is being called into question. Here's why they're technically legal—for now. (Jayne W. Orenstein/The Washington Post)

Almost in spite of her instincts, Porretti keeps an open mind. Loughran, after all, is passionate about his work and is good at it. But she can’t just ignore the chatter that increasingly feels like body shots to an industry that, for now, can determine the direction of her future. On Thursday, Nevada became the sixth state to ban daily fantasy after ruling that it constituted unlicensed gambling and was not a game of skill. Earlier this month, the Justice Department and FBI opened an investigation into whether daily fantasy’s business model violates federal law; a DraftKings employee won $350,000 allegedly with information not available to the general public, drawing comparisons to insider trading; and a federal grand jury has reportedly been convened in Florida to determine whether the sites violate state law.

“I could visualize them a year from now being gone,” said Scott Jones, a marketing professor and sports-business expert at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. “There’s smart people involved in both of these companies, and I would bet that they feel a real fear.”

In the living room of an apartment 25 miles north of Philadelphia, a young couple — one half bold, the other anxious — sits together and watches a football game. Loughran is hopeful, if not certain, the storm will blow over. Porretti can’t fight off the notion that her boyfriend’s career, and in turn her own future, is being built on dangerously shifting terrain.

Substituting an addiction

A decade ago, Loughran had allowed drugs to take hold. Days were mostly spent without purpose, other than getting high. He’d lasted six weeks at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, then came four turns in rehab, after which he earned an associate’s degree from Bucks County Community College.

Loughran, who chose not to specify the substances he used, said that he hasn’t used since July 2008. He took a job selling advertising for a magazine company and, in his free time, played in fantasy football and hockey leagues with his friends. He won, of course, the first two hockey championships.

Sober but unfulfilled, he became a caseworker at a drug and alcohol facility, counseling teenagers who struggled as he once had. Sports, perhaps the only thing in his life he felt truly passionate about, acted as a way to connect with the 14- to 18-year-olds he was assigned. He then enrolled at Temple, studying psychology, his life back on the tracks after drugs had temporarily derailed it.

For kicks one day in 2012, he deposited $40 into a FanDuel account, and almost immediately, it was gone. He replenished it with another $40, but instead of arbitrarily selecting players this time, he pored over statistics and matchups. He spent hours searching for patterns, directing his free time toward finding a slight edge over his thousands of competitors. After a few months, he says, he had turned that second $40 into about $12,000; a short time later, he won $25,000 in a single night.

He played fantasy sports year-round, basketball his specialty, and developed a routine: staying up past midnight, cycling through dozens of browser tabs, talking for hours with friends about indicators and values. He assembled experimental lineups and tinkered with combinations. He examined injury reports: not just the offensive players he was considering but also the defenders whose weaknesses could be exploited.

Some professional fantasy players come from finance or mathematics backgrounds; others spent time in the data-analysis or research fields. Loughran had no such experience.

But Loughran nonetheless uses the budgeting principles of an economist, the discipline of a stock-trader and the profit reinvestment approach of a house flipper. He puts favoritism aside — whether involving his beloved Philadelphia Eagles or a player who had rewarded or burned him in previous weeks — and uses lower-stakes games to mitigate risk. The result? Loughran has profited in every week but one so far this NFL season.

“It’s very easy,” he says, “to replace one addiction for another.”

An uncertain future

She used to coax him out of the apartment, into the car, toward the sports bar to watch the Eagles with friends. But they always ran late, Loughran says he rarely drinks alcohol, and besides, when they did go out he’d spend the hours watching his phone in silence, waiting for the point totals to refresh on his fantasy sports Web sites.

So now they compromise, changing into their Eagles jerseys and watching from the couch. Loughran tossed his phone across the room once. He smokes more while the games are on. He doesn’t say much.

“This,” she says, “is what he loves.”

When they started dating, in November 2012, Loughran didn’t offer much about fantasy sports. He didn’t tell her how much money he had risked or won. It was a hobby, she told herself, that’s all. As they grew closer, though, Porretti couldn’t help noticing the time Loughran put in.

Then, in spring 2014, Loughran four classes shy of graduating from Temple, he stopped going to class. He had started writing for a fantasy sports site. He took his computer to bed and waited for Porretti to fall asleep; he would then slip into the next room, blasting the air conditioning so that she wouldn’t hear him recording a fantasy podcast.

A full-time student, she rose before 6 to attend classes; sometimes he’d sleep until 11. She’d occasionally come home and find him still in his sweats, glued to his laptop. As spring turned to summer last year, Loughran’s job changed at the drug and alcohol facility, more paperwork and less interaction with the young people. That made it easy for him to quit.

Porretti didn’t like it.

“I was so against it,” she said, and she considered breaking it off, feeling increasingly uncomfortable advancing a relationship with, as she saw it, a professional gambler. “I was always like: I can’t do this. I can’t not have that security.”

They later discussed using some of Loughran’s winnings for a down payment on a house, but invariably Porretti brought up daily fantasy’s long-term prospects. Porretti, nervous about her boyfriend’s absence of a backup plan, was unwilling to roll the dice; they again compromised, agreeing to start house-shopping next summer, after Porretti graduates.

But Loughran, as he often does, sees it differently. His writing salary, from the fantasy site, is a backup plan. He is now experienced, because of the doorway fantasy created for him, at broadcasting, writing and networking. And, he adds, he doesn’t worry about an uncertain future because he plans for it. After profitable weekends, Loughran says, he transfers around 20 percent of his winnings into a separate account. The three largest online poker sites weren’t shut down until 2011, five years after the legislation meant to restrict them, and Loughran says he has a year’s worth of living expenses set aside.

“I still get worried,” Porretti says.

Speaking of worried, she adds as Loughran preheats the oven for leftover pizza, what’s all this about Florida? The story line surrounding daily fantasy has been so fluid, potential threats to Loughran’s livelihood coming from all directions, that Porretti can barely keep up.

Four days before Nevada banned daily fantasy, Florida was looking into whether federal gambling laws conflicted with state laws, which could lead yet another state to shut down play. And that’s what has Porretti’s attention: If Florida is thinking about banning the games — daily fantasy sites are also prohibited in Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana and Washington — what happens if lawmakers deem it unlawful in Pennsylvania?

“We’d move,” Loughran says, and Porretti looks at him with raised eyebrows.

“Uh-uh,” she says. “You can drive to Jersey every day.”

Loughran sighs. They’d figure it out, he says.

“I have an attitude that I always land on my feet,” he explains. “I always have.”

The oven dings, and Loughran slides a pan onto the rack. Odell Beckham Jr., the New York Giants’ star wide receiver, catches a pass and runs into the end zone. Loughran hadn’t inserted Beckham into any of his lineups; whoever did was just rewarded with six points, a potential cut into Loughran’s winnings.

“Damn it,” he says, going on to curse San Francisco’s putrid defense.

“How much did you play?” Porretti asks.

“A decent amount.”

Either satisfied or weary, she does not press him for more. The minutes pass in silence. Porretti has elected to trust that Loughran knows what he’s doing.

“I guess I’m on board now,” she says.

“You are,” Loughran says, heading toward the kitchen.

“I am.”

No turning back

He turns up the volume on the ESPN NFL pregame show, taking a long pull from his e-cigarette vaporizer. It’s less than an hour before he must lock in which players he is including on his fantasy teams.

“Crunch time,” Loughran says, scrolling through his selections. “I’ve got to make my mind up. I hate this.”

He is surrounded by purchases made possible by, and tools for, fantasy sports — a half-empty can of Red Bull, the sofa, the TV, his laptop, the iPad, his iPhone. He clicks among 37 browser tabs, monitoring information that can change by the second. The final 60 minutes pass quickly.

“We’re going,” Porretti says, she and a friend disappearing into their home office for a study session before the next day’s exam. Loughran has said that, despite their differences, a bohemian sharing a life with someone risk-averse, their relationship is strong. He has promised to be more honest about his career and the ongoing threats to it. She has vowed to be supportive, or as supportive as she can be. “I’m forcing myself,” she’s said, “ to be okay with it.”

With 30 minutes to lock, the seconds counting down in his browser window, Loughran scans Twitter and a fantasy chat for late information on players around the NFL — Jamaal Charles, T.J. Yeldon, Todd Gurley, Willie Snead. Satisfied for the moment, he steps outside to choke down a cigarette. “You get a little anxious, yeah,” he says, pacing on his balcony. “You get used to it. But you can’t focus on that. If you focus on that, you’ll destroy yourself.”

This is the same part of his personality that prevents him from worrying about daily sports fantasy’s future. Whatever happens next, he says, is beyond his control; might as well enjoy the ride and make a few dollars. “It’s here while it’s here,” he says, and if it’s shut down, he’ll find a new path. Always has.

Loughran retakes his place on the couch, and doesn’t say anything for a long time. One minute 18 seconds to lock. He clicks and types and drags and rechecks. Another pull on the vaporizer. “Is everything in place?” he says, thinking out loud. “Is everything good?”

It’s not. With nearly 50 lineups, a few screws need a final tightening. Thirty seconds to lock. He scrolls down, hedging almost $800 in case a key player is injured or a big-money lineup underachieves. When Charles suffers a knee injury later, it will prove to be a smart play. “No turning back,” he says.

He clicks another browser and finds the orange rectangle at the bottom of the screen. Three seconds to lock . . . two . . . one. He clicks the submit button and leans back into the sofa cushion, nothing left to do — on this day and in the foreseeable future — but wait and see what happens.