Once upon a time, you needed to plan ahead to watch the start of the NCAA Tournament. A fake coughing fit on Wednesday afternoon, an artificially raspy voice on Thursday morning, and by Thursday afternoon you'd be on your couch watching CBS. These days, every opening-round game is available via streaming video, and the tournament is the biggest sporting event in the country—a three-week mega-event that mashes up pride for our alma maters, our love of underdogs, and a collective affinity for low-stakes gambling.
As the tourney's scale has grown, so have the office pools. A few short years ago, America's cubicles were filled with the sounds of pencils scratching away on paper brackets. Now, online tournament tools are required to handle the massive amounts of entries. With the death of the paper bracket has come the death of a beloved office character, the guy responsible for more than his fair share of America's lost March productivity: the Bracketmaster.
You know the Bracketmaster. He's the harried, Sharpie-stained guy who organized your office pool, collected the brackets, and handed out the prize money. He gave his heart, his soul, and four to six hours of each day to college basketball. And now he's obsolete.
For seven years, I was the Bracketmaster. My NCAA pool grew from a friendly gathering of 15 co-workers and pals to an unmanageable 141 entrants from 18 states and three countries. By the end, running the pool had become a second job. Part of the time-suck came from dealing with all those $5 bills, personal checks, and PayPal notices. A lot of the problem was that I felt obligated to write entertaining e-mail updates, which gradually grew from short lists of high scorers to long, discursive accounts of the day's games and rationalizations of my annual pick of the University of North Carolina. (Foolishly loyal to the end, I even picked the Tar Heels in 2002, the year they didn't make the tournament.)
But what truly ate up my time were the brackets. Oh, God, the brackets. My life became an endless torrent of paper. The brackets carpeted the floor, festooned the couch, covered the computer keyboard. We received them by e-mail as PDFs, Word documents, or Excel spreadsheets. We received brackets via fax, including a handwritten one on U.S. Senate letterhead with a note claiming that "No taxpayer dollars were wasted on the creation of this bracket." And we got brackets in the mail, one of which arrived in an envelope reading: "ATTENTION FEDERAL POST OFFICE EMPLOYEE: ILLEGAL GAMBLING DOCUMENTS ENCLOSED."
For three weeks, my wife and I wielded red Sharpies, circling winners and X-ing out losers. We enjoyed the godlike power, taking particular joy when an entrant's championship pick lost in the early rounds. There was no finer feeling than crossing that name out all the way down the bracket lines, malevolent Fate snipping the thread of any possible future that might have contained Gonzaga—really, what were they thinking?—as NCAA champion.
For a god, I was surprisingly fallible, making tiny but crucial mathematical errors. Even when I got all the brackets right, entrants misremembered their own picks and sent me angry e-mails about their score. Sure, I was kingpin of an international gambling ring, but where was the glamour? When you came right down to it, I was just pushing paper around—a fifth-grade math teacher, marking pop quizzes for a class full of grade grubbers.
So, after seven years of hard labor, I quit. We had a daughter to take care of, which meant I didn't really have time for one job, much less two. Naturally, the first year I didn't run a pool, North Carolina won it all.
Tourney pools have changed since I gave mine up. Web sites like ESPN.com have developed ever more powerful Web apps to manage the Madness. With these tools, it's a snap to organize a group of co-workers or a group of friends around the world, or simply test your mettle against millions of other hoops fans. And since computers are a bit better at math than humans, brackets can now be graded accurately in an instant rather than graded inaccurately over the course of two days. With NCAA pools now pretty much paperless, the Bracketmaster is out of a job. (Rather, he no longer has his second job, which, on the bright side, may allow him to keep his first job.)
A confession: For the first time in several years, I'm running a pool this season—using an online bracket. All I have to do is set up a group on ESPN.com, click through my own bracket, and send out an invitation to my friends; the Worldwide Leader does the rest. ButI'll miss the tactile sensation of working my way through the bracket, circling teams, making a last-second choice to scribble out that No. 4 seed in favor of the 13. I'll miss the pleasure of putting pen to paper and ruthlessly culling 65 teams down to one (North Carolina, obviously). There are certain tasks that are simply more satisfying when done the old-fashioned way; solving a crossword puzzle, for example, will never feel right on a computer screen. Filling out a bracket feels the same. Pointing and clicking VCU over Duke does not offer the rich emotional rewards of slowly, deliciously putting pencil to paper and sending Coach K to his doom.
As a Bracketmaster and a stretched-thin dad, I won't miss those paper brackets, which have now gone the way of the computer punch card. But as a college basketball fan, I'll miss the intense, laserlike focus on college basketball I developed while handling all those printouts. I'll miss immersing myself in the tournament and becoming a bracket savant—the guy who knows every first-round matchup by heart, the guy with the data at his fingertips. But I won't miss the paper cuts.