Playing Warren Buffett’s billion-dollar NCAA bracket challenge? Consider the odds

jshaffer@newsobserver.comMarch 16, 2014 

— Monday morning, millions of college hoops fans will boldly scribble out NCAA Tournament brackets with dreams of contest cash – even if they think Villanova is an Italian coffee, even if they believe Wofford is a good name for a sheep dog.

The biggest dreamers will enter the Quicken Loans’ Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge, which offers a $1 billion prize for a sheet of perfect picks. Warren Buffett, the nation’s favorite moneybags, has personally guaranteed the pot.

But Duke University mathematics professor Ezra Miller has calculated the exact length of this long shot, and it’s beyond the moon.

Before you consider taking your winnings in $25 million installments or a $500 million lump sum, consider these odds: 148 pentillion to 1. That’s 148 billion billion, or 148 followed by 18 zeroes.

“It’s the chance of picking an atom out of a snowstorm,” he said.

To soften this hard truth, Miller notes that these are chances of picking the winner of every game at random. If every game offers a guesser a 1-in-2 chance, calculate the perfect-bracket odds by multiplying a half times a half times a half times a half ... until you’ve filled out the bracket.

“You can plug that into your favorite calculator,” Miller said.

For guessers with some knowledge of the game, the odds narrow to slightly less astronomical. Suppose 10 games are too close to call. They get 50-50 odds. Figure the rest get increasingly easier to call: 10 games at 60-40, 10 games at 70-30, 10 games at 80-20 ...

Your chances: 1 in a billion.

Miller, who teaches a popular “Math Everywhere” course at Duke, concedes he’s not the biggest fan. He knows some of the Duke squad, and he naturally feels home loyalty. But he won’t be signing up for a chance at Quicken’s billion, which requires a Yahoo membership and email address.

“Honestly, “ he said, “it’s not worth the extra spam I would get.”

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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