Bored With Brackets? Here Are 11 Alternate Ways to Run an NCAA Pool.

The stadium scene.
March 17 2013 6:45 PM

Methods to the Madness

Bored by your run-of-the-mill NCAA bracket contest? Try one of these 11 alternative ways to gamble on the tournament.

Marshall Henderson
Marshall Henderson #22 of the Ole Miss Rebels celebrates with teammates after winning the SEC Tournament.

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Read more from Slate’s coverage of the NCAA tournament.

It's time to get your picks in for the 2014 NCAA Tournament. But what if you don't want to make those picks in the same way you do every year? Last year, Alan Siegel ran through a bunch of alternate ways to run a March Madness pool. The original article is reprinted below.

The bracket is out and time is running short—start making your picks already. Tossing in your $5 (or $20 or $50 or a whole lot more) for an NCAA tournament pool is an American tradition. But like many traditions, this one has gotten stale. Most pools work in the exact same way: Everyone fills out a bracket, each correct pick is worth a pre-determined number of points, and whoever ends up with the highest total at the end of the tourney wins.

But that’s not the only way to gamble on March Madness. Below, we’ve collected 11 alternate ways to bet on the tournament, ranging from the head-slappingly simple to the absurdly complex.

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(A note about managing your pool online: CBS Sports, ESPN, and Yahoo all have bracket management platforms. Yahoo’s system is the most customizable, which will come in handy if you want to take a non-standard approach to scoring your pool. The website Print Your Brackets also provides templates for some of the variants discussed below.)

The Every-Game-Counts Method

In the typical pool, the point totals increase incrementally by round: You get one point for each game you pick correctly in the Round of 64, two points for the Round of 32, four for the Sweet 16, eight for the Elite Eight, 16 for the Final Four, and 32 for the championship game. The easiest way to switch things up: Make everything—from the 1-16 matchups in the first round to the title game—worth a single point.

Pros: You’ll care about every game.

Cons: If someone picks a huge amount of early winners, the pool could be locked up before the Final Four. And some lucky yokel could win the whole thing without picking any of the Final Four teams correctly.

The Round-Times-Seed Method

This is a close relative of the standard bracket challenge, in which the point totals increase as we get deeper into the tournament. In this version, you multiply the points you get for picking a winner by the winning team’s seed. For example, if you correctly predict that Oklahoma, a No. 10 seed, wins in the Round of 32, you get 20 points—the standard two points for a victory multiplied by 10. Cha-ching!

Pros: The joy of the NCAA Tournament comes in watching underdogs take down traditional powers. With this system, those big upsets are even more exciting (and more remunerative).

Cons: As Quora user Ben Greenfield points out, this system “heavily penalizes incorrect underdog picks. Since each successive round is worth twice as much as the previous round, knocking off 1 and 2 and 3 seeds is an extremely dangerous strategy as, after all, they are by far the most likely to actually advance to the valuable late rounds.” Live by the underdog, die by the underdog.

The Blind-Draw Method

Put the names of every tournament team in a hat (or in one of those spinning lottery drums, if one is available) and have each participant draw one at a time. After everybody has picked once, repeat the process until there are no teams left. Blind-draw pools are scored like traditional pools—each win notched is worth a pre-determined number of points. At the end of the tourney, the spoils go to the person with the most points.

Pros: It’s a stress-free selection process. This method frees you from worrying about the potentially disastrous picks you would’ve otherwise spent hours contemplating.

Kelly Olynyk
Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk celebrates after the Bulldogs won the 2013 WCC Championship Tournament.

Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Cons: It takes zero thought or skill.

The Square Method

The tried-and-true Super Bowl method comes to March Madness. Print out a grid, like this one. Fill each of 100 squares with a participant’s name. Here’s how the website Squares Madness explains the next step: After all the squares are taken, “randomly assign numbers 0 through 9 to each column, followed by doing the same for each row. Now each square represents a specific score in the game based on the column and row numbers.” Then, for every game, assign one team to the y-axis and the other to the x-axis. If you match the last digits of the winning and losing team’s final scores, you’re the big winner.

Pros: You have 60-plus chances to win.

Cons: You’re rooting for scores, not teams. (LET’S GO NINE!)

The Auction Method

Every team is up for grabs, and you can bid on whom you want in your stable. In some variations, each participant has a maximum budget, and you can blow that allotment on a couple of the best teams or diversify with a large group of Cinderellas. In the version that Grinnell College professor Erik Simpson helped come up with, “teams are bought in a standard auction format, with rising bids in 10-cent increments.” Then, each game that one of your teams wins is worth a certain percentage of the total pot. (For example, in Simpson’s pool, each victory in the round of 64 is worth 1.25 percent of the kitty.)

Pros: In an email, Daniel Lauve, who developed his own auction format, said: “It’s a good way to personalize the tournament. Each team is tied to exactly one person, and the ‘portfolios’ that people put together usually reflect their personalities. There’s a certain machismo that always results in No. 1 seeds being overbid, and people who don't follow basketball can pick schools they like and participate for a buck or two.”

Cons: Organizing a live auction is a pain. Then again, live auctions are really fun. And somebody gets to bang a gavel.

The Team Draft Method

After drawing for draft order, each member of your group selects a handful of teams, presumably starting with the highly ranked squads, then moving on to the lower seeds. The draft continues until all the teams in the tournament are divvied up. Each participant must have the same number of teams. (If there are leftovers, those teams sit on the sidelines, irrelevant to everyone.) You earn points for each game your teams win.

Pros: You get a varied menu of teams to cheer on—a couple of powerhouses, a few mid-tier squads, and a group of sleepers.

Cons: Since you’re working with a limited subset of the tournament participants, there will be some games that you don’t care about (at least for gambling purposes).

The Compulsive Gambler’s Method

This one is based on a World Cup pool described by Geoff Klein on the “Hang Up and Listen” Facebook page. Before each game, everybody in the pool puts a dollar (or any fixed amount) on the team they think is going to win. The winning group then splits the pot. For example, if there are 25 participants and 23 pick Kansas to beat Western Kentucky, a Jayhawks win will net the Kansas backers $1.09 each. (25 divided by 23 equals 1.09.)

Pros: What’s better than wagering money on a bajillion college basketball games?

Russ Smith and Peyton Siva
Russ Smith and Peyton Siva of the Louisville Cardinals celebrate after they won the Big East Tournament.

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Cons: Somebody’s got to keep track of a whole lot of bankrolls.

The Survivor Pool Method

This system, devised by Grantland’s Bill Simmons, works like an NFL suicide pool, where you can only pick each team once. First, you pick two winners for Day 1 (the first Thursday) and two winners for Day 2 (the first Friday). To stay alive, all your teams have to win. If you make it to Day 3 (Saturday) unscathed, you only have to pick a single winner. One loss is fatal, but like in Super Mario Bros., you actually have three lives. During the tourney’s first weekend, you can buy back in up to three times by paying another entry fee. However, every time you buy back in, it gets harder to advance.

Buy back after Thursday’s games and you have to pick four winners on Friday; buy back after Friday’s games and you need to pick five winners on Saturday; buy back during Saturday’s games and you need six winners on Day 4 (Sunday). On Sunday, and every day of the tournament thereafter, you need only pick a single winner per day. The last survivor wins the whole pot.

Pros: The buy-back process may be a bit fraught and complex, but otherwise this is pretty simple. At most, you’re only picking a handful of games at a time.

Cons: You may suffer a quick, painful death.

The Fantasy Draft Method

As if you’re not in enough fantasy leagues. In this case, forget secondary offensive stats and defense—just draft a bunch of players and tally up how many points they score. “You aren’t necessarily looking for the best player, but rather the guy who is going to play the most number of games and score the most total points,” Evan Pfaff wrote on his website, Big 12 Hoops. He calls this system a “gunner draft.” Whoever gets the best gunners wins.

Pros: Risk can be rewarded, handsomely. Imagine if you gambled on Stephen Curry in 2008. During that year’s tournament, the skinny sharpshooter averaged 32 points over four games for No. 10 seed Davidson.

Cons: A low-seeded gem like Curry is rare. The most valuable players are the ones on teams likely to go deep in the tournament. That means you’ll be rooting against upsets and picking the starting lineups of Duke, Indiana, and Kansas. D’oh.

The Ted Gooley Method

In March 2011, the Wall Street Journal’s Carl Bialik profiled biostatistician Ted Gooley, a researcher at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In 2007, he unveiled an NCAA pool designed to reward upset picks.

“Each correct pick was worth one point divided by the probability that the pick would be correct,” Bialik wrote. “If a team has a 50 percent chance of winning its first game, picking that team would be worth two points. A team with a 20 percent chance would be worth five points—if it won. The goal is to set a fair price for each pick; the favored teams are likely to win but aren't worth many points, while underdogs pay off more if they pull off the upset.”

As Bialik explains, Gooley “gathered the results from every tournament since 1985 to see how often teams with a given seed advanced in each round. Then he used the raw numbers to create a statistical model that calculates probabilities even for events that never have happened.”

In an email, Gooley told me his system remains sound, although in some cases the point totals have changed. For example, he said, “in 2013, a 15 seed … beating a 2 seed is worth 24.0 points as opposed to in 2011, where this outcome netted you 27.2 points. This is because a 15 seed beating a 2 seed is ‘more likely’ in 2013 than it was in 2011 (and hence worth fewer points), due mainly to the fact that two 15-seeds won games in the first round last year.” (If you’re intrigued by Gooley’s method, check out the Simple Bracket iPhone app, a Kickstarter-funded project that uses the researcher’s NCAA tournament scoring system. At the moment, this is the only way to get the Gooley scoring system.)

Pros: Because upsets are worth so much more, it forces timid participants to go out on a limb. “I think mine is the fairest and most equitable way of assigning points,” Gooley told the Journal.

Cons: The scoring system may be fair, but it’s quite complex. Good luck keeping track of everyone’s point total.

The Bill James Method

Bialik’s 2011 exploration of NCAA tournament pool methodology also included a pool developed by stats guru Bill James. The James approach requires each participant to pick one No. 1 seed, one No. 2 seed, one No. 3 seed, and so on down the line. Everyone is allowed to pick whomever they want—there’s no draft or auction. You get points every time one of your teams wins, with victories by underdogs and wins later in the tournament counting extra.

Pros: As James told Bialik, “Since it was virtually impossible to have duplicate entries, every ballot was unique, and you could choose whoever you wanted.” And as opposed to draft and auction methods, this system allows for tournament pools of any size.

Cons: You don’t get to fill out a bracket. Where’s the fun in that?

Read more from Slate’s coverage of the NCAA tournament.

Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. You can reach him at asiegel05@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.