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Can classes yield a billion-dollar bracket?

So, about that billion dollars.

Warren Buffett looks at his offer to pay $1 billion to anyone who fills out a perfect NCAA tournament bracket as nothing more than a matter of having the numbers in his favor.

Mathematicians say he's right. That's still not stopping them from building a cottage industry by teaching bracket-fillers how to make the impossible seem possible - or a little less improbable.

Around a half-dozen college professors are offering special classes to teach people the ins and outs of the numbers that will, inevitably, work against them. And there's one website - takebuffettsbillion.com - that says it will send a unique, statistician-crunched bracket to anyone who signs up, with the promise that all those in on the gig will split the money if one of those brackets is the winner. (As of Monday, about 9,000 people had signed up.)

"I'd love to demystify all this," said DePaul math professor Jeff Bergen, whose expertise has been in demand this month. "The math involved is quite simple and can be done in a high school class. What blows people away is the magnitude of the numbers. You look at the number '9 quintillion' and it's hard to wrap your head around it."

There are a few more than 9.2 quintillion combinations for a 64-team bracket. A quintillion is 1 million times 1 trillion - a 1 with 18 zeros behind it. If every possibility were filled out on its own sheet of paper, the weight of the paper would be 184 trillion tons - more than 500 million times the weight of the Empire State Building.

To help whittle the odds, math professor Tim Chartier of Davidson College held a seminar. For $100 a head, he offered a class last week touted as 90 minutes where you could "learn how to craft an NCAA basketball tournament bracket from a master, and let mathematics boost your chances of creating the perfect bracket."

Over the past few years, Chartier's system has helped a handful of Davidson students finish in the top 2 or 3 percent in different contests, including one run by ESPN, which gets more than 1 million entries. His system weighs a number of variables, including records, strength of schedule and, most notably, how teams are currently playing. (That last factor is one the NCAA selection committee leaves out of its seeding considerations.)

"The key to it is not necessarily doing some amazing thing that nobody's ever done," Chartier says. "The key is weighting it but weighting it with an ability to identify when a team is strong."

At St. Joseph's, alumnus Joe Lunardi, who is widely credited with creating the "science" of bracketology, offered a $99 course in which he shared some of his trade secrets. The final exam involved filling in the names of the teams on a mock bracket. (Lunardi himself probably would've gotten an A-minus: He nailed 10 of the top 12 slots, but, like most people, never saw North Carolina State making it and SMU left out.)

The University of Cincinnati business school offers a class that meets three Saturdays before Selection Sunday. Professor Mike Magazine teaches the history of the NCAA tournament and also how to go through probabilities and game simulations to come up with a winning bracket.

"The life lesson," Magazine says, "is that we make a lot of decisions that are the right decisions, but the outcomes don't always come out the way we planned."

Buffett is betting on that.

Quicken Loans paid Buffett's holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, an undisclosed amount to insure the billion-dollar payoff. Guesses are Buffett received anywhere between $1 million and $10 million, and, according to Bergen's calculations, anything more than $1 million would be a very good investment.

Bergen calculates that someone with knowledge of basketball - say, someone with the rudimentary smarts to go with every No. 1 seed in their first game, where they are 116-0 over the last 29 years - still only has a 128 billion-1 chance of being perfect.

Buffett's contest is capped at 15 million entrants, so, Bergen says, if all 15 million sign up and they all have some knowledge of basketball, the odds are still 8,500-1 against a perfect bracket. That's more than a 99.99 percent chance that everyone will get at least one game wrong.

Bergen says you'd have a better chance of buying one Mega Millions ticket and one Powerball ticket and winning both in the same week.

All of which reinforces the fact that about the only sure thing in March Madness is that there are no sure things.

Join the discussion

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Mike Ross March 17 2014 at 10:08 PM

I was going to sighup to play on the yahoo site but during the process of registering, they force you to provide them with your cell-phone number. I do not want to get ads on my cell-phone for the rest of my life so I decided not to play and keep my cell-phone number private and safe from advertizers.

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playingtheyaw March 18 2014 at 9:43 AM

the odds are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000....to 1 against you

Buffett really stepped out on a limb

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pinochlenana March 18 2014 at 2:28 AM

Everyone seems so negative about someone who offering to give his money away. If someone does win, i will be interested to see what these same people's comments will be. It is his money, and he should be able to do as he pleases with it. I think everyone would love a bit of his money, and he is making a game that will take knowledge, knack and really good luck to win. Same thing as the Lottery, Power Ball, but I sure don't hear too many people complaining about those. And yes, i try my luck with them.

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pinochlenana March 18 2014 at 2:24 AM

If Mr Buffet wants to give away some of his money, he can send a little my way. Thank you.

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laura March 18 2014 at 12:25 AM

Wonder what he would give to the person with most wrong,that would be me lol.

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1 reply
TooDles, Goddess laura March 18 2014 at 7:49 AM

at work one year we did a bracket where we had to pick half the teams to win out of the 64 and follow them to the end. i don't remember what we won (obivously i didn't). one of my friends won a "sepcial" prizr because all of her teams were elimated in the first round.

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IN MY OPINION ONLY March 18 2014 at 12:18 AM

Mr. Warren Buffett, stick with your guns, don't let anyone cheat out your $1 billion dollar game offer. It'll be more fun if nobody won that?
Then the lesser prizes will suit well like $100K ones could be satisfying per winning players. 1 Billion is overwelming? He has $62 billion but has to leave most of the stock in it's place to avoid crash, if he cashed out all of his $62 billion, the companies' stocks would crumple like it happened to Facebook's founder that took out $1 billion worth of FB's stocks into cash out that caused Facebook's stocks to crumble. It too long for FB's stocks to regain value.
I don't have Mr. Buffett's kind of money, I live in basement of my folks residence out in the counrty for the past 8 years with my girlfriend, our rent's $800 a month including electric & laundry room, more cheaper than crowdy aptartment and its roomy & peaceful on a 4 acre of land enough room for my 2 cars too.
Mr. Buffett has a 400 acre ranch, wow. I'm very proud of Mr. Buffett since I read Richie Rich comics as a young kid, still got 200-300 of them in box. Richie's GF's name is Gloria in the comics and my 17 year long GF's name is Gloria too.

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1 reply
vidalhoward IN MY OPINION ONLY March 18 2014 at 1:23 AM

Warren Buffett is never giving out the money and he knows it. No one will even come close.
By the way FB stock is doing well, only a few years ago it was zero. Oh yeah, your comic books may be worth more than your 4 acre of land and your 2 cars. Take care of mom and pops and give my best to Gloria, oh wait on that, I already did.

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BARRY AND KATHY March 17 2014 at 11:28 PM

Unfortunately, this writer has it wrong too so he won't be winning the billion.
What he meant to say is; If everyone of the 15 million who signed up filled in DIFFERENT complete brackets, Even if only one game, there would still be only a 8500 to 1 chance that ONE of the brackets would be perfect.
The only winners will be the ones selling for $100 the class to the suckers. Any knowledgeable pro better knows as much.

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hessgaryb March 17 2014 at 11:16 PM

This is just a racket to get your info. I put all info in and they keep asking for more and I still haven't gotten to a bracket. No surprise if no one wins any money.

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gb0493bh March 17 2014 at 8:22 PM

Ho Hum,,, a (smart) Billionaire playing with his toys,, and idiots minds for the media.

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Chuck Rogers March 17 2014 at 8:58 PM


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