The Impossible Allure of the Perfect Bracket

A blank college basketball bracket is a beautiful thing. It is a ski slope cloaked in fresh snow, enticingly unsullied, waiting to be slalomed upon.

As it fills up with picks, a bracket becomes something like a work of art, conveying a person’s ideas and hopes and imagination. It remains aesthetically pleasing. It carries a plausible narrative logic.

In that fleeting moment, a college basketball bracket is as close to perfect as it will likely ever be. Inevitably, usually as soon as the first games of a tournament tip off, things will start to get ugly.

Each March, millions of people across the country submit their picks for the N.C.A.A. men’s and women’s basketball tournaments to office pools and online contests, and then they watch along, striving for perfection, trying to will their bracket into existence.

But failure tends to be the unifying experience. Despite our best efforts, mathematicians dismiss the possibility that someone could fill out a so-called perfect bracket — selecting 63 games correctly in a knockout tournament — as borderline preposterous.

Then why does the idea that it might one day happen, that some die-hard fan or apathetic office worker or team of researchers at a university could flawlessly predict six rounds of play, loom so large in sports fans’ collective imagination?

There are few things in the human experience that feel as oddly doable and downright impossible at the same time.

“You’re picking 63 games, so that sounds like, ‘Hey, that shouldn’t be that hard, and if there’s millions of people filling out brackets, somebody should be able to do it,’” said Ken Pomeroy, a college basketball statistician and analyst. “But we could play the tournament for a million years and someone would not get a perfect bracket.”

The odds may be best stated upfront. There are 67 games in each tournament, but mercifully most bracket contests allow participants to skip the four play-in games. Treating each of the 63 remaining games as 50-50 coin flips, the probability of predicting a perfect bracket is about one in 9.2 quintillion.

Care to see the full number written out? It’s 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. And if you need help with the commas, a quintillion equals a billion billion.

But basketball games tend not to be true tossups. Accounting, then, for the fact that some matchups are easier to predict, the probability drops to one in the tens or hundreds of billions, depending on who is calculating them — still far, far less likely than hitting the Powerball jackpot, for instance.

“Perfection’s basically impossible,” said Richard Cleary, a mathematician at Babson College. “It’s out of the question.”

In 2019, Gregg Nigl, a neuropsychologist from Columbus, Ohio, went on what is accepted to be the longest verifiably perfect run in N.C.A.A. men’s tournament history. Submitting a bracket he had filled out in a few minutes — and under the influence of cold medicine — Nigl predicted the first 49 games correctly before seeing his streak snapped.

By then, he was a celebrity in the sports world. While his streak was intact, Buick paid for him and his son to fly to California to watch late-round games. He found the whole experience surreal. While strolling through the Newark airport to catch a connecting flight, he saw his face beaming out from a row of televisions in a sports bar.

Nigl considers himself a lucky person. In 2001 on a beach in Hawaii, he spotted Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam, his favorite band. He shook Vedder’s hand and even got a picture with him. His head, back then, was spinning: What could be luckier than this?

Eighteen years later came his tournament run. People pester Nigl today for his yearly picks, believing he might have some special insight. They ask him what cold medicine he took when he mapped out his magical bracket. (It was Tylenol, “Cool Burst” flavored, for the record.)

“I kind of chuckle,” he said. “I don’t know why they want my help; I’m not going to do it again.”

Nigl, now 44, said he is assuming that no one will break his record during his lifetime.

“I knew I wasn’t going to get a perfect bracket,” he said, “and I don’t think anybody ever will.”

People will continue to try. Many will believe they can do it. Human beings, it turns out, are notoriously bad at understanding really big numbers.

Ask a mathematician to put the scale of these figures — the quintillions and hundreds of billions — into terms you might more readily grasp, and you may find yourself in a discussion of the stars in the sky and the sand by the sea.

“Our finite minds and our inability to think of numbers of those sizes can make it more alluring than it is,” Tim Chartier, a mathematician at Davidson College interested in sports analytics, said about attempts to fill out a perfect bracket.

The N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament began 84 years ago with eight teams, and expanded gradually over the years, to 64 teams in 1985. The N.C.A.A. launched its women’s tournament in 1982 with 32 teams, and it hit 64 teams in 1994.

Bracket pools began to spread rapidly after the 64-team field was introduced. The symmetry of the format represented its own form of perfection, and its clean knockout format broadened its appeal to hard-core and casual fans alike. Now, the fields for the N.C.A.A. tournaments are 68 teams.

Among the scores of Americans seduced by the tournament was Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, who in 2014 partnered with Quicken Loans to offer a promotional $1 billion prize to anyone who achieved a perfect bracket.

Nobody won, predictably, but in the years since, Buffett has run a smaller, somewhat more attainable contest for the employees of his company, Berkshire Hathaway, and its many subsidiaries.

In Buffett’s current pool, anyone who picks a perfect first round — all 32 games — wins $1 million. Anyone who correctly predicts each of the 48 games in the first and second rounds wins what the company is calling a “lollapalooza prize”: $1 million annually for the rest of their lives. The entrant whose bracket stays perfect to the deepest point in the tournament will be awarded $100,000.

Buffett said in an interview last week that he expected somewhere in the range of 80,000 entries. This year, to eliminate the chance that an unlikely upset spoils everyone’s fun, he is giving his employees all first-round games involving a No. 1 or No. 2 seed as freebies.

That leaves 24 games in the opening round. The odds of correctly calling 24 coin flips in a row work out to about one in 16 million.

“It’s not impossible,” Buffett said. “I would love to fly somewhere and hand somebody a million bucks in $100 bills.”

The field of so-called bracketology has attracted mathematicians and statheads who endlessly tweak predictive models, researching new ways to gain any small edge.

But the charm of the event, ultimately, remains rooted in how ineffectual rigorous analysis and robust algorithms can actually be in predicting how the tournaments will play out. They will always, to some extent, be an exercise in randomness, with perfection an impossibly distant dream.

“Bracketology really underscores the unpredictable nature of the human experience,” Chartier said. “I think it’s why we watch sports. No matter how much we know, no matter how much we study, no matter how much we cheer, we intrinsically know that we have no idea how it’s going to unfold.”

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