Buffett’s Billion: a numbers game you won’t win

“It would be like you and I sitting at a table. I’m going to flip a coin and you are going to accurately predict the coin flip 63 times in a row. But if you know something about basketball, your odds are about one in 128 billion.”
Mar 20, 2014

 

In 2009, mathematician Tim Chartier and his students at Davidson College devised a formula to pick winners in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament better than almost anyone else. That year, using strength of schedule and late season hot streaks, combined with middle school algebra, the Davidson math class out-picked 97 percent of the 4 million bracketeers in ESPN’s annual March Madness contest.

“I was just stunned, particularly since it was new research,” Chartier remembered this week from his college office in North Carolina.

The next year, Chartier’s students replicated their feat, as they did the next year and the next. All of this seemed a rather quaint achievement, a footnote to Americans’ annual rite of spring, trying to predict winners in the 63 games of the tournament in their office pool. This year’s extravaganza begins Thursday and culminates with the Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington in early April.

But then, in January, Chartier caught wind of an ingenuous publicity stunt. Quicken Loans, with the backing of Warren Buffett, would fork over $1 billion to anyone who correctly called every game.

“The moment I heard it, I said to my wife, ‘I think things are going to get quite complicated for me this year,’” Chartier said of the Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge.

He was right. Since the Buffett announcement, Chartier and a handful of his mathematics brethren have become veritable rocks stars, popping up everywhere in the national media, quantifying odds and offering expertize to those in pursuit of a piece of Buffett’s fortune.

A few days ago, Chartier and his students offered a New York City bracketology seminar to about 45 basketball fans who paid up to $100 each for the privilege. About 20 members of the national media came to observe. Chartier is also a member of a New York Times panel tasked by the paper to put together a winning bracket. The other members: Four young girls who rotate in the title role of Broadway’s Matilda the Musical.

Chartier said the Buffett billion has also caught the attention of someone closer to home. His 11-year-old son, Noah, has insisted on having dad help with his own bracket.

“Daddy, it’s a billion dollars,” Noah said recently. “I said, ‘How about this? I’m the one who came up with the research. You’re going to make the choices. If we win, you get $25 million a year for 40 years. How about I get $1 million a year.

“He didn’t immediately reply,” Chartier said. “He sat and thought about it. Then he said, ‘Yeah, I’m okay with that.’ “

But even with the help of dad, Noah will likely have to come by his fortune some other way. Jeffrey Bergen is another of the recent mathematics rock stars. The DePaul University professor was the first to calculate the odds of the perfect bracket: One in 9 quintillion, give or take. That’s a nine followed by 18 zeroes.

In truth, Bergen says, a bracketeer’s chances of taking Buffett’s money aren’t quite that bleak.

“If you are just guessing, that’s where the quintillion number comes from,” Bergen said this week. “It would be like you and I sitting at a table. I’m going to flip a coin and you are going to accurately predict the coin flip 63 times in a row. But if you know something about basketball, your odds are about one in 128 billion.”

Whew. That’s a relief.

“If an individual has a perfect bracket after the first round, he still has only a one in seven-and-a-half million chance of running the table for the last 31 games,” Bergen continues. “It’s easy to say, ‘I’m over half way there. I’ve only got 31 games to go.’ Except those last 31 games are the harder ones. You are looking at teams that are closer and closer to each other. The coin flip analogy in the later rounds starts to become more reasonable. It becomes more like predicting 31 coin flips in a row.”

In the somewhat unlikely event that someone survives two rounds, the odds diminish to one in 32,000.

“That’s still a long ways to go, but it’s enough to start getting excited,” Bergen said. “That’s a lot better chance than winning the lottery on a single ticket. But you still have to pick 15 in a row. You want to see how hard that is? Sit down with a buddy at lunch and see how long it takes to get 15 coin flips in a row. You are going to get in trouble for taking a long lunch.”

Which underscores the notion that the Quicken/Buffet stunt is just that.

“You know Buffet and his people have calculated this,” Bergen said.

John Diver, in charge of ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, the network’s own online bracket contest, is happy to pour even more water on the Buffett parade. The Quicken/Buffett contest is hosted by Yahoo.com, an ESPN competitor.

Beginning 17 years ago, more people have filled out NCAA brackets with ESPN than at any other website. If anyone had nailed a bracket before, chances are it would have been with the network. Hasn’t happened, Diver said. Not even close.

“Only once in the last seven years has anyone had a perfect first round of 32 games,” Diver said. “That’s over roughly 40 million brackets. I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but it’s impossible.”

It’s likely that a handful of bracketeers will be left standing after Thursday’s and Friday’s opening games, Diver says. But then there will be none.

“On Friday afternoon (the second day of the tournament), we will have a game that goes final and we will no longer have a perfect bracket left,” Diver said. “If we don’t have a perfect bracket, Buffett’s guys won’t either. I kind of hope that someone does have a perfect (Round of 32) bracket this year, so Buffett will have to sweat it out a little.”

The ESPN Tournament Challenge offers a somewhat more modest prize to its winner, a $10,000 gift certificate to Best Buy. Other on-line brackets offer similar tokens. But given the favorable odds, Diver has suggested to his bosses that they up the ante.

“Let’s offer a $1 trillion prize,” he said. “Let’s one up Buffett.”

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