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On the Allure of Brackets

March 25th, 2010

For the first time in my life I am participating in a NCAA Championship Bracket “pool”. First, an honest disclosure… I have never once seen a complete NBA, college, or high school basketball game. I think the one basketball game I watched from beginning to end was a community league game with a team from Microsoft way back when I was, like, ten. Basketball has just never been my game, and when you’re not all that into sports to begin with, these things have a way of totally falling off your radar. Yet, since I have joined this bracket thing, I have become obsessed… but I still haven’t watched a single game of basketball.

The pool is organized by a work friend who I think offered me an invitation to join out of pity… or perhaps spite. We are using a Yahoo! tool that, at least to the inexperienced bracket maker, is pretty cool. Filling out the bracket proved to be a rather challenging activity when you don’t know anything about anything. I decided early in the process that I would put the Huskies as the National Champions (why are the Huskie’s using a non-edu domain name?). I figure, what’s the point of having an alma mater with a good sports program if you can’t bet the farm on them without any legitimation justification. This proved easier in theory than practice, because you can’t just say “Huskies win everything” and be done with it… you need to actually pick the team the Huskies will beat at each match in the competition… and to do that, you need to pick all the teams those teams will beat in order to match up with the Huskies… and the next thing you know I’ve picked dozens and dozens of match-ups based on essentially no evidence or skill.

Now, here we are at the start of Round 3, the so called Sweet Sixteen. I am in a pool of 23 brackets and currently rank 13th… but only 3 correct picks separate me from 1st place. Now here’s the kicker… for all my lack of skill and general sports-related incompetence, I am tied for first place on points possible. Meaning my bracket is more intact than anyone else I’m competing against. All of my choices for the Final Four remain in play and the Huskies are still going strong.

How did I do it, you might ask yourself? Well, the secret was to not understand how the bracket seeding worked, because I had no idea that Kansas was considered a strong favorite for the National Championship, so I had them losing in the second round… and wouldn’t you know?! Of course, I thought they would lose to UNLV instead of Northern Iowa. But, seriously, that sort of thing isn’t important. What’s important is that by total random chance I avoided a pitfall that snared nearly half the pool.

I’m still not sure how to articulate the allure of brackets. I still have no interest in watching the games… the few times basketball has been on in a bar or wherever, it never keeps my attention. At it’s core this is gambling to me, because the choices might as well have all been coin flips. But the real draw here is the dependent nature of each match-up. Having done “well” in the early rounds, I am now positioned to do better in later round. Sort of the rich gets richer scenario. It’s also interesting because there were simply so many choices, and the amount of data one would need to know to make “informed” decisions is so overwhelming, that I seriously doubt experts do much better than your average laymen.

It’ll be a couple of weeks until we know the final winner and I’ll be sure to post a follow up… until then, I shall keep refreshing my bracket results to see which names turn red or green, while totally ignoring the games themselves.

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