The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Sports

March 19, 2014

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."

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