Don’t Be a Sucker—You Shouldn’t Take Warren Buffett’s $1 Billion Bracket Challenge

The stadium scene.
March 14 2014 6:38 PM

Don’t Take Warren Buffett’s Bracket Challenge

You’ll get $1 billion if you fill out a perfect NCAA bracket. Don’t do it.

Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and Co-Chairman of Goldman Sachs
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, in Detroit in November 2013.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Thanks to Warren Buffett and Quicken Loans, signing up for a shot at $1 billion is as simple as filling out a form on a website.

Just register online for the Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge, make your March Madness picks, and crack open a High Life. If you pick the winners of 63 NCAA Tournament games (you don’t even have to pick the winners from the play-in round!), you’ll haul in the biggest cash prize in world history. All that, and it’s free to enter. How could you lose?

The contest is a master stroke of publicity: Buffett and Quicken have descended on one of the most electric weeks in U.S. sports, slapped their names all over its most addictive fan tradition, and wrapped the whole thing in a $1 billion bow. It’s enough action, cash, and fun to whip you into a drooling frenzy. Which is probably fine with the sponsors, since if the lusty haze were to wear off, people could start doing silly things like running the numbers or reading the fine print. And if you did that, you’d probably notice the following important things about this contest.

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1) You will not win.

140314_SNUT_quintillion_bldgs

Courtesy of kokogiak.com

There is a chance, but the chance is so vanishingly small that it’s actually more rational to say there’s no chance. As Yahoo and Quicken note in the fine print of their rules page: “odds of winning the Grand Prize are 1:9,223,372,036,854,775,808.” That’s 1 in 9 quintillion and change. See the image to the left for what a mere 1 quintillion pennies would look like (the larger white sliver is the Empire State Building). Another way to think about it: If all 317 million people in the U.S. filled out a bracket at random, you could run the contest for 290 million years, and there’d still be a 99 percent chance that no one had ever won. 

Unlike the lottery, basketball isn’t random. Better teams usually beat worse teams. And many people who fill out brackets tend to have at least some basic information in the form of the seedings, historical trends, and player stats.

Jeff Bergen, a math professor at DePaul University, derived a more realistic calculation that takes basketball knowledge into account. If you know the sport pretty well, he concludes, your chances of picking perfectly are more like 1 in 128 billion.

Still not so hot. As Bergen explained, that would mean you’d need to fill out about 90 billion brackets before you even had a 50-50 chance to win.

2) No one will win.

ESPN has been running a large-scale bracket contest for 13 years. Nobody has ever come close to perfection, the sports network’s John Diver told CNN in January. Only one person in the last seven years managed to pick just the first-round winners correctly.

“I don’t want to say it’s impossible,” Diver said, “but it’s basically impossible.”

The giant Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries are set up so that someone has to win eventually. As a given jackpot grows, more people hear about it and buy tickets, and since there’s no limit on the number of tickets sold, the probability that one of them is a winner approaches 100 percent.

Not so here. Buffett and Quicken have capped the number of entries at 15 million, so the odds that there’s a winner stay very, very small. If you use Bergen’s calculation, generously assuming the contest fills up with 15 million basketball experts, then Buffett and Quicken would have to pay the billion only 0.012 percent of the time. That means there’s about a 1 in 8,500 chance that anyone wins, period.

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