Betting is a terrible idea, unless you're going to win. Then it's the best.
When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, we should all know by now that it's easy to be humbled and have your brackets broken (see: Northern Iowa beats Kansas.) Still, betting has become such a popular part of the tournament culture that in a study released by the NCAA, the FBI estimates that more than $2.5 billion will be gambled illegally on NCAA tournament games worldwide -- despite threats of legal action against illegal bettors in the states of Washington and Idaho. Compare that to only $80 million legally in Las Vegas.
If you're in one of those two states, just be smart, that's the bottom line. Don't work with third-parties who take a percentage of the overall winnings, don't over-publicize your pools, and don't, whatever you do, bet with people you don't know. If someone doesn't get paid and reports it to the authorities, you're going to have a wonderful afternoon of community service.
But if you are to become a "bracketeer," here are a few helpful hints to betting smart and picking smart.
When it comes to betting, keep the wagers small. College students, need you be reminded that either your parents are paying a freaking boatload for you to go to school or you're paying for it yourself? Your parents probably wouldn't appreciate you losing $1,000 to a stoner in your fraternity because you "had a good feeling" about East Tennessee State against Kentucky. And you'd be better off using $1,000 as toilet paper than throwing it away in a betting pool.
If your name is Rick Neuheisel or you are, in any way, affiliated with a university, it's best to avoid betting on the games at all. Getting fired is generally counter-productive to making money and paying bills. But according to the NCAA's gambling survey from a few years ago, roughly 37% of all NCAA student-athletes reported wagering on sporting events within the year. Now that one-in-three stat is either alarming to you as it stands, or perhaps not even a true reflection of what's really going on with athlete gambling. After all, student athletes usually don't incriminate themselves ... unless you play for the Oregon Ducks football team.
Winning pools can actually be an easy way to make money for the savvy student, and for someone used to selling back $100 books for $20 cash, it's a nice change to see a financial venture that gives you winnings. From years of playing in bracket pools, I've finally figured out the formula for winning: Make the chalk picks. I've spent years of losing to learn this.
The quickest way to win an NCAA Tournament pool is to submit multiple brackets. Leave no stone unturned, as they say. But most leagues don't operate under a multiple-bracket system unless contestants are willing to pay per bracket, so working on picking the best individual bracket is how most college students are going to win money.
The problem is that brackets are alluring; they're the siren's song to the passing Odysseus. Everyone wants the underdogs to win and that seeps into the subconscious as people whimsically pick the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos to go to the Final Four. I watch college basketball, I study the game and analyze teams from every conceivable angle like a chess player spinning around a board looking for new dimensions. Sports analysts work hard to justify the subconscious to their conscience in these situations. My conscience tells me that I have a nine quintillion-to-one chance of picking every game right. My subconscious tells me that Aubrey Coleman from Houston led the nation in scoring and is going to single-handedly demolish fourth-seeded Maryland.
Some of you may be just like that. And it's a problem! The people who have the most success in brackets are the people who don't care, who don't know what's going on. They pick teams based on their seedings ... 1 beats 16, 1 beats 8, 1 beats 5. It's simple probability and, when you overcomplicate a simple equation with narcissistic variables (as in, "But I saw them play on TV against so-and-so, their point guard is going to light it up, mark my words!"), you lose.
Math is never wrong -- especially not nine quintillion-to-one math. Still, I wonder what the odds against Northern Iowa were...
Seattle-based Erik Larsen is an award-winning former sports editor of the Loyola University Chicago school newspaper, the Phoenix, a former sports writer for the Chicago Tribune's RedEye, and author of the Sports Tzu blog. Got a tip? Or a spare ticket to the Final Four? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March Madness betting brings everybody into the pool