Math whizzes have already concluded that it's near-impossible to pick the perfect bracket in the NCAA college basketball tournament, but can a computer algorithm help you get to selection nirvana? The odds are against it.
Microsoft's search engine Bing on Monday introduced a "bracket builder" that promises "intelligent predictions" to help you come out on top in your office pool, especially if you don't have time to follow all 68 teams in the tourney. Bing Bracket utilizes a predictive algorithm based in part on data gleaned from more than 10 seasons of Division I basketball results. If you're too lazy to research all the teams, the algorithm can auto-fill the form for you.
Jeff Bergen, a math professor at DePaul University, says that while knowledge of college basketball might improve your odds, a perfect bracket will remain elusive. (Even if you're President Obama, college basketball fan and bracketologist-in-chief.)
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First, if you were just randomly guessing at who would win each game, Bergen has calculated that the odds of ending up with a perfect bracket are an unfathomable one in over 9 quintillion. That's 9 followed by 18 zeros.
"Sit down with a coin and try to flip 'heads' 63 times in a row. When doing this, consider every 'tail' as an incorrect bracket. You will quickly see that flipping 'heads' 63 times in a row is virtually impossible," Bergen told NBC News by email. "It is more likely that the Cubs and White Sox will combine to win the next 16 World Series. Or, it is more likely that the Seahawks will win the next 12 Super Bowls." (For non-sports fans, that's baseball and football he's referring to.)
Bing algorithms, which had a pretty fine showing in World Cup and NFL playoff predictions, can only improve your odds so much.
"I would say that with knowledge of basketball you can shrink your odds to approximately one in 128 billion. So you greatly improve your chances by intelligently using data," Bergen said. "But it is still much easier to win the grand prize in the lottery buying only one ticket than it is to get a perfect bracket using all the available data." (Which is probably why Warren Buffett's $1 billion prize for a perfect bracket went unclaimed last year.)
Bergen's advice? Forget about choosing a perfect bracket.
"Have fun. Enjoy the games and the camaraderie. Don't worry about perfection."
— James Eng