How to win your office March Madness pool

NEW YORK Thu Mar 14, 2013 8:52am EDT

Rutgers Scarlet Knights forward Austin Johnson (21) drives for a layup through Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Jerian Grant (22), forward Zach Auguste (RC) and center Garrick Sherman (11) during the second half of their NCAA men's championship basketball game at the 2013 Big East Tournament in New York, March 13, 2013. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine

Rutgers Scarlet Knights forward Austin Johnson (21) drives for a layup through Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Jerian Grant (22), forward Zach Auguste (RC) and center Garrick Sherman (11) during the second half of their NCAA men's championship basketball game at the 2013 Big East Tournament in New York, March 13, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Ray Stubblebine

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Need more people for your office March Madness pool? Call Brad Carlin, he is looking to enter one.

On second thought, don't call him.

That's because in his former NCAA basketball tournament pool, the professor of biostatistics at the University of Minnesota crushed his opponents three times in five years. Carlin was so successful, in fact, that organizers shut down the pool entirely.

"Now I can't get a game of jacks in this town," he says.

Too bad, because there is plenty of money to be won.

The site Pregame.com estimates that wagering on this year's March Madness tournament will exceed $12 billion, more money than was riding on the Super Bowl. Of that, $3 billion will be put into office pools of tournament brackets.

Much of this is not exactly, well, legal. Sports betting is against the law in almost all states, so when you are handing in your picks to the guy in the next cubicle, money is not really supposed to be changing hands.

But with the President himself making an annual show of filling out his bracket, and legal or tax authorities showing no inclination to go after small-fry deals like office pools, it has become an annual rite of passage to have a little cash riding on college hoops.

"It blows my mind how big March Madness has gotten over the years," says Chris Hehman, a former Nortel Networks engineer who set up the website PickHoops.com 16 years ago so he wouldn't have to score pool results by hand. Now the site handles around 100,000 brackets a year, for office pools around the country.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg: Last year alone, ESPN.com's national contest had an astonishing 6.45 million brackets filled out for the NCAA men's tournament.

With such widespread interest in March Madness, the nation's bosses tend to turn a blind eye to gambling concerns.

A 2010 poll by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 67 percent of American workplaces had no formal gambling policies in place, and that a whopping 57 percent have a March Madness pool every year. That's behind only the Super Bowl, and well ahead of other events like the World Series or the Oscars.

ALL ABOUT THE MATH

So how did Brad Carlin do it? After all, he's not a Phil Jackson-level basketball savant.

As his experience suggests, there are ways to discern key patterns, and the results are not as hard to predict as you might think.

"It's like Billy Beane in Moneyball, or Nate Silver with the federal election," says Carlin, who actually wrote an academic paper on the subject. "These are standard statistical tools. It's not rocket science; anybody can do it."

Okay then, but how?

There are two answers to that question, says Carlin.

One involves probability modeling, which crunches numbers to figure out expected point spreads when two teams face one another. Sites like Poologic.com will do that math for you once the NCAA selection committee sets up the tournament brackets on March 17.

The second involves what other bettors are going to do. You could bet all the favorite teams, but even if your picks win every game you are hardly going to win any money, because everyone will be sharing the same pot. If you pick some unlikely victors, on the other hand, you increase the chances of having a big jackpot all to yourself.

As Carlin says, "You're not just playing against the house - you're playing against other people."

Here are some general principles to keep in mind when making your picks:

TAILOR PICKS TO THE SIZE OF THE POOL

The tournament favorites are favorites for a reason; they're proven winners who have a legitimate shot at the title. So if you're in a relatively small office pool of 10 or 15 people, stick largely with the teams that are highly seeded.

But if you're in a large corporate pool of hundreds of entrants - or huge national competitions like those of Yahoo! or CBSSports.com - "you have to go out on a limb" and pick some longshots, says Chris Hehman. "A bracket picking all the favorite teams is just not going to get it done."

NOT ALL UPSETS ARE CREATED EQUAL

It's always fun to pick a Cinderella team among the 15th or 16th seeds. Indeed, some pools feature upset incentives, which give you added points for selecting victorious underdogs. But be realistic. An unknown team from a lower-tier conference is not going to go all the way.

With that in mind, be judicious with your upset calls. "Between 8th seed vs. 9th seed teams, 9s actually do a little better," says Hehman. "With 7s vs. 10s and 6s vs. 11s, upsets happen with regularity. Fives upsetting 12s happens once in a while. Anything more than that, you're really going out on a limb."

AVOID THE LOCAL FAVORITE

It's human nature to root for your hometown team. It's also, generally speaking, a losing strategy.

"We all tend to advance our local team to the Final Four," says Tom Adams, a systems analyst from Cary, North Carolina and creator of Poologic.com, which uses advanced mathematical calculations to help people make their picks.

"If you live in Kentucky, everyone in your office is probably rooting for Kentucky. But that means that other seeds in that bracket are probably underbet, and are a smarter way to go."

PICK A CONTRARIAN CHAMP

In many March Madness pools, the scoring is heavily weighted towards the later rounds, so that picking the eventual champion is key to winning the whole thing. But historically, the prohibitive national favorite has trouble pulling it off (except, notably, this past year with Kentucky).

"Look at the bigger online pools like ESPN or Yahoo!, to see how people are betting this year," says Adams. "Then avoid the top champ, and go with a weaker one- or two-seed. That will give you a key advantage for winning it all."

(Editing by Lauren Young and Bernadette Baum)

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