BENAC: A perfect bracket? Don’t bet on it
March Madness is one of the most exciting sporting events because it is so unpredictable. The Madness has a weird way of affecting teams: often, it can spur mediocre or middling teams into powerhouses and turn the hands of the best players into turnover producing jelly. Upsets are common and its rare that the No. 1 team honestly wins a championship.
That unpredictability is why picking playoff brackets is such a fun and frustrating undertaking. Dozens of leagues of betters spend billions of dollars a year trying to craft the perfect bracket.
As far as we know, its never been done. ESPN has been hosting online brackets since 1998 and out of the 30 million entries since then, nobody has had a perfect bracket. That’s not saying that Todd McGrunt over in Pigtown, Oklahoma couldn’t have picked a perfect bracket without anybody knowing.
Its just that the odds against anybody ever picking a perfect bracket are…quite steep.
And that’s what Warren Buffett is banking on with his billion dollar “Perfect Bracket” deal. I don’t even have to ask if you’ve heard of this. Of course you’ve heard of it. Everybody has heard of it. If you’ve a pulse, you’ve heard of it.
However, just in case you’re somehow ignorant, I’ll explain: business genius and billionaire Warren Buffett and Quicken Loans are offering one billion dollars to anyone who can pick a perfect March Madness bracket.
That’s a “1” followed by “000,000,000.” That’s a lot of zeroes.
All you need to do to play along is use a Yahoo account to pick your bracket. It is predicted that at least 15 million people will enter the contest, but that number could be even higher.
I’m making a bold prediction right now: nobody will win that billion dollars. No one will even come close. In fact, if every single person on Earth (currently about seven billion) made their own bracket, not a single person would win.
I can make this startling, bold claim based on simple mathematics. Before you sign up for that Yahoo account and spend hours slaving over a perfect bracket, you should know the predicted odds of picking a perfect bracket. It’s kind of breathtakingly difficult to understand this number, especially if you think you’re an expert at sabermetrics.
Your chance of picking a perfect bracket and winning a billion dollars is 9.2 quintillion to one.
Are you confused by that number? Never heard of a quintillion before? It’s okay if you haven’t: I hadn’t either. Nobody, but the most dedicated statistician and mathematician, has ever heard of a quintillion. People don’t use that number in the real world.
I find the easiest way to visualize 9.2 quintillion is 9,200,000,000,000,000,000.
That’s a lot of zeroes: 17, to be precise. It’s a staggering number and a heart breaking number. Its mind boggling and impossible to fathom. There’s no way the mind can understand that kind of number and how thoroughly it destroys your billion dollar dream.
However, there may be some hope left for you “perfect bracket” dreamers out there. Statistician calculated that number under the assumption that every game in the playoffs has an equal chance of being won by either team.
I don’t think you need to be a mathematician or a sports expert to see the problem with this method. After all, this method labors under the assumption that Western Michigan has a 50/50 chance of beating Syracuse in the first round.
Yeah, that’s not really going to happen. Individual team skill and ability matters heavily in this bet and if you know a little bit about basketball, you can greatly improve your chances of winning.
Jeffrey Bergen, a math professor at DePaul, says that if you take into account a little knowledge of basketball and the obviousness of many of the first round matchups, your odds improve to 128 billion to one. Or, if you are a visual learner (like myself) 128,000,000,000 to 1.
I wouldn’t let these improved odds soothe your wounded bracket pride. These are still, essentially, impossible odds to overcome.
If you don’t believe me, take the following into consideration: the odds of winning the average state lottery is 175 million to one. That’s about 10 percent of the odds of getting the perfect bracket.
How many of you know (or are) the kind of person who spends 30-50 dollars a week on lottery tickets, convinced that buying multiple tickets increases their odds and that this week will be their week to win? And how often has that person won the lottery?
Odds are…probably about zero times.
Statistically, the only real chance of anybody at all winning Warren Buffett’s billion dollar bet would be if every person on Earth, literally every single person, down to the newest born baby and the most decrepitly elderly person, filled out 18 unique brackets each. That is, roughly, 128 billion individual brackets. Each of these 128 billion brackets would have to be completely unique.
Out of those brackets, only one would be the winner.
Buffett has created yet another genius move. His company offers one billion dollars (that it has no chance of losing) and creates a little advertising stir, putting the words “Warren Buffett” and “Quicken Loans” on everyone’s lips for several months.
“What an idiot!” people say as they frantically fill out their brackets, unaware of the true impossibility of their chances at winning. “That cash is as good as mine!”
Is it wrong to offer such hope to people? Such frantic, fleeting hope at instant cash? I probably couldn’t predict the winners of the first three games, let alone every game. And I’m a professional!
Honestly, I don’t think that Buffett is fooling anybody. People understand the odds. They know they’re not likely tow in. The fun isn’t really in the winning, but in the chance at winning. The thrill of knowing you have entered a billion dollar contest, no matter how impossible it will be to win.
Its not like sports nuts, the kind of people who obsessively fill out brackets every year, don’t already know how hard it is to pick even the first round properly. And its not like the millions of people who don’t even know how to pronounce Villanova could truly harbor any real belief that they’re going to win.
I certainly hope they don’t, anyway. If anybody out there thinks they really have a chance at winning, they need to consider the following comparisons.
You have better odds of winning the lottery 10 times. You have better odds of flipping a coin and having it land on heads 37 times in a row. Baseball teams have better odds at winning the World Series for seven straight years. In fact, there are better odds that you’ll be in a plane crash that is getting hit by lightning and attacked by sharks in a hurricane.
Don’t let that discourage you though! Quicken Loans will award $100,000 to the 20 most accurate brackets. I don’t know what the odds of winning that prize is, but I’d say its probably a lot higher than 9.2 quintillion to one.
Eric Benac can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5690. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricBenac.