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How to win the March Madness pool

The experts offer some suggestions for increasing your chances of winning the pot.

By Karen Datko Mar 15, 2010 1:12PM

One of the benefits of schlepping to work every day is roundly enjoyed each spring -- the office March Madness pool. (Sure, you can do it online if you work at home, but an office pool is much more fun.)


Everyone does it. “The NCAA estimates that more than 35 million Americans participate in office pools, and, according to Nielsen Media Research, 92% of fans who watched games online do it at work,” The Tampa Tribune reports.

Been there, done that. And, back in the day, we used a combination of educated guesses, baseless hunches and emotional picks to fill out the bracket. We did OK for a round or two.

If only we’d known about the method described by Sarah Lorge Butler in a post at CBS MoneyWatch.


Here’s a brief description of the system Al Saracevic at SFGate  called “a pretty darn good cheat sheet for the average office bracketologist.” 

Make your picks for the first round. Choose all the No. 1 seeds and then use Vegas odds to select the other winners. Butler writes: “According to efficient market theory, ‘all the available information about teams is available in the Vegas odds, and so things like location and injuries are already taken into account without having to look into the details,’ says Jarad Niemi, an assistant professor in the department of statistics and applied probability at UC Santa Barbara.”


Pick your champion. Say what? That’s right. You skip the rounds in between and pick the ultimate winner. “That’s because in a standard scoring pool, getting the champion right gives you a motherlode of points. Nail that, and you won’t have to be perfect in the rest of your sheet,” Butler says. Avoid the top two favorites, and go with a team ranked somewhere between third and sixth -- the third- and four-ranked No. 1 seeds and the top two No. 2 seeds. Also, avoid obvious picks -- like the home state team -- that everyone else will be betting on. You want to avoid sharing the winnings with everyone else.


Find online help from people who are smarter than you about this stuff. Butler linked to’s calculator and Joel Sokol’s calculations. “Those probability models are where the really math-y folks have made their mark on this process,” she said.


Revise your earlier picks a bit. Don’t always pick bettors' favorites -- you can find them online -- when lower-ranked teams face off, but don’t go overboard on upsets. “People tend to pick upsets early and go conservative in the Final Four. If you’re in a big pool, you need to flip-flop that: Go boring in early rounds, and slightly strange in the Final Four,” Bryan Clair, a professor in the math department at St. Louis University, told Butler.


Enter more than one sheet, if the rules let you. Picking different teams to win the top spot obviously improves your odds of winning.


OK. Now you're ready. And luckily for you, the Trib article says employers are looking more favorably on March Madness pools because they’re good for morale. Goodness knows we all need help in that department.


“Even though workers wasting work time on March Madness could cost the nation's employers as much as $1.8 billion during the first week of the tournament alone, it's only a blip on the total productivity radar," says John Challenger, head of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which studies the impact.


What’s your method for making picks? Everyone seems to have one. (For another version, check out Ian Powers’ article at the New York Daily News.)


Meanwhile, for fans of personal-finance blogs, Free Money Finance’s annual March Madness for bloggers is already down to the Sweet 16. Visit his site and vote for your favorite post.


Related reading:



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