The Oracle of Omaha has gotten into the collegiate sporting spirit early, offering up a Warren Buffett March Madness challenge. Warren Buffett and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert are pairing up to offer a cool billion bucks to whoever can pull out a flawless NCAA men’s basketball bracket.
The details are pretty straightforward — you can enter from March 3-19, fill out brackets starting March 16, one bracket per household. (More info here.)
But how do you give yourself the best chance to win the Warren Buffett March Madness challenge?
You’re in luck, as you’re talking to a member of the financial media who also has a decent background in sports … especially when it comes to winning the occasional pick ‘em, suicide pool and bracket.
And I’m willing to let you in on a little secret:
There’s No Good Way to Do It
None. No magic bullet. No secret formula.
Really, the truth is that Joe Fan doesn’t know nearly enough about all 64 (sorry, 68!) participants to have even remote confidence in their bracket.
Think about it: You’d have to make educated decisions not only about all the first-round matchups, but then all the resulting matchups through the very final one. And that means factoring in not only what you know about the teams, but having to account for the possibility of individual/team outperformance, underperformance, injuries, emotional highs and lows, ability to play closer to/farther from home, etc.
That’s why urban legends surround winning-but-not-even-perfect brackets. “I picked the coolest mascots.” “Favorite colors.” “Dartboard.” Enough people with little knowledge win their bracket pools that those strategies are plausible.
And there are no old wives’ tales concerning how such-and-such achieved a perfect bracket for one simple reason: It’s never happened.
Frankly, I’m a little peeved that my NBA rooting interest’s owner is dangling this apple of Tantalus in front of everyone, but hey … better to win $1 billion for the impossible than nothing at all, right?
And impossible it is — or as close to impossible as something technically possible can be.
The winner of the $1 billion Warren Buffett March Madness prize is looking at a 1 in 9.2 quintillion chance. Off the cuff, those are about the odds of finding a needle in a haystack, and that needle actually being the key to Davy Jones’ locker, in which someone has stuffed a winning Powerball ticket, the Hope Diamond and a written Kanye West apology.
Of course, if it were me …
I’d Just Pick by Seeds
The seeds are more or less an imperfect way of ranking teams based on their regular-season success, and reward better teams with easier paths to the championship (at least early on). The top seed is “1,” and the lowest seed is “16” — in the first round, 1 plays 16, 2 plays 15, so on and so forth through 8 seeds, which play 9 seeds.
In theory, “lower” seeds should beat “higher” seeds because they’re supposed to be better. Happens more often than it doesn’t, but certainly not all the time.
So, here’s how you play the seeds:
- 1 vs. 16: Always pick 1s. The 1 seed has never lost to a 16 seed, and increased parity be damned, it’s probably never going to happen. If it does, it’s going to screw with a lot of brackets anyway.
- 2 vs. 15: 15 seeds are 7-and-109 against 2 seeds. Granted, three of those came in the past four years, but the odds still scream “don’t advance a 15 seed.”
- 3 vs. 14, 4 vs. 13: Of the eight games represented here, pick one underdog.
- 5 vs. 12: Pick one 12 seed at minimum, two at most.
- 6 vs. 11, 7 vs. 10, 8 vs. 9: Whatever floats your boat.
AFTER THE FIRST ROUND
Go nuts. Whatever strikes your fancy. Try to stick to two things, though:
- Do not pick a seed lower than 8 to win the Final Four. Only one has done it ever (Villanova, 1985). Stick with 1s through 4s.
- Do not pick all 1s. That has happened just once (2008).
Of course, both sports and finance have something to say about betting on history: “History has never won a game,” and “Past performance is not indicative of future returns.”
Frankly, it’s just the way I’d prefer to lose.
Playing the seeds is just what I’m comfortable with. But frankly, it’s no better a way than drawing each game’s winner out of a hat or having your dog point to pictures on a wall.
Remember that when you read the next 20 articles on how to be the king of Warren Buffett’s March Madness challenge.
Kyle Woodley is the Deputy Managing Editor of InvestorPlace, a former sports copy editor and a degenerate fantasy sports player. He’s also a fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but not their progress this season.