Monday, March 14, 2011

The WWOD? Guide to Running an NCAA Office Pool

Big-time men's college hoops powerhouses - like Kentucky, Duke and Ohio State - that clinched their respective conference titles on Sunday afternoon, have plunged headlong into an incredibly a hectic 96 hours. From finding out where they're scheduled to play this weekend during the Selection Show on Sunday night to scouting their upcoming opponents and traveling to the various first-round tournament sites, there are few people busier than the coaches, equipment managers, athletic directors and players participating in the Big Dance.

The only folks who may have more on their plates this week? Those hale and hearty men and women running an old-fashioned NCAA Tournament pools in offices around the country. Brackets must be printed. Scoring systems divined. Cohorts recruited. Witty emails composed. And fees collected. Running your office pool can be a weeks-long whirlwind of clandestine office work, done with great personal risk of paper cuts and an increased exposure to algebra.

Or you can just start a pool on Yahoo or some such place on the Interwebs and not have to do much of anything but send one email. But before you click to accept their terms, I ask you to consider a better way.

On General Ludd and the Virtues of Handcraft
As the Industrial Revolution was changing the face of English culture at the tail end of the 1700s, one man is reputed to have stood up against the forces of change. One man is supposed to have spoken out in favor of the work done by human hands (albeit slower work that often came at greater expense). This man, Ned Ludd, smashed a pair of mechanical knitting machines that were taking away jobs for him and his buddies.

As the Industrial Revolution (not to be confused with The Puppy That Lost Its Way) gained steam in the 1810s and '20s, a swarm of British textile workers rose up under Ludd's name and smashed looms across the land. The Luddites were revolting across England and tying down British troops that were needed to fend off Napoleon. This brouhaha was such that the breaking of looms became a capital offense. Yeah, that means it was punished with the death penalty. And, no, "breaking the loom" is not a nineteenth century euphemism for sodomy. In 2011, now that we're not so hung up on losing our jobs to looms, "Luddite" is a mildly derogatory term for someone who hasn't waited in a long line for an IPad.

As someone who would love to not have a mobile phone tracking my every movement and making me available to everyone (except my lovely girlfriend who can call any time she wants) at all times, I can respect the Luddite worldview. Which is one of the reasons that I am a huge advocate of running your office pool the old fashioned way: with printed out and filled out paper brackets. Leave this newfangled click-and-drag stuff to the rocket scientists and shut-ins. I say, let's scribble and cross out names on greasy well-worn pieces of paper like the degenerate gamblers we are.

Aside from my own rejection of change and fondness for the gambling days of yore, there are a handful of reasons why it's better (and more fun) to have competitors manually fill out and submit their brackets.

Top Five Reasons For Paper Brackets

1. Pay to Play. Someone hands you a bracket and the fee at the same time. There is zero hassle about collecting money from people who sign up online but you never see in person.

2. My Mac Ate My Bracket. With most offices populated with a mix of tech-savvy youngsters and middle-aged folks who need a child or spouse to get that danged DVD player to work, the use of hand-filled brackets eliminates any cries of "I meant to pick X but the computer gave me Y."

3. Graphology. Now, I don't think that you can necessary learn about a person by the penmanship of their bracket, but I do think that people put more of themselves into a handwritten bracket than one they fill out online. For starters, most online bracket games have players select winners in such a way that the big picture is somewhat obscured. Whereas the breadth and depth of the tournament stares you in the face when you fill out each line of a paper bracket. All of the If... (Team X wins) Then... (They Might Face Team Y) And... (They might meet in this location of significance) Which... (Means that I have a hunch about who will win) Abstractions that make this so fun are much more likely to come into play. People worry over paper brackets while eating lunch, dripping mustard or spilling coffee on them. They cross out earlier picks and doodle in the margins. It's just not the same without them. It's also a lot harder for contestants to (e)mail it in by quickly clicking on team names before the deadline. Long story short, people try harder and care more with paper brackets.

4. Scoring Updates. Not surprisingly, I ran the annual office pool at my previous job. There had never been an office pool there and it grew each year that I was with the company. By the time I had moved on to greener and friendlier pastures, the annual office pool had become something that those who participated really looked forward to each spring. Aside from the inherent thrill of gambling, the emails with the scoring updates were always a fave facet of the tournament. These emails became so popular, in fact, that even a few folks that didn't participate asked to be cc'd on the emails throughout the duration of the tournament. Now, this is the first way in which running an office pool with paper brackets puts more onus on the lifeguard. But we'll worry about that later. In the meantime, emailed updates from the person in charge are integral to a solid pool because they provide a common meeting place for all participants. Rather than logging on to Yahoo separately to see what's happening (or not even checking once things are underway) everyone gets to find out where they stand at the same time. A ripple of excitement shoots through the office when that first notice goes out on the morning of the second day of the tourney. There is a collective experience that bonds everyone together and gets people talking. And, this may be the best (and only) situation for the "reply all" email function. All of a sudden, the Marketing VP is commiserating with the guy in the mail room because they both are at the bottom of the standings. When done right, the scoring updates foster the sort of camaraderie that makes the office pool great (and lucrative).

5. Freedom. Working outside the confines of Yahoo, ESPN, CBS or whichever media conglomerate you favor allows your office pool to use whatever scoring system you choose.

A Note on Invitations: When breaking ground on a new office pool (regardless of whether you're using paper brackets) one should be moderately careful of whom they invite to come for a swim. This sort of gambling is, I believe, still illegal. It's also a renowned time suck that some workplaces may frown upon. Send an initial email out the Monday after Selection Sunday to those intrepid souls that you know for a fact will participate. Ideally, this number will include people in various departments or areas of the office. Ask these players to forward the email to anyone else they think may be interested. In your initial email, it's worthwhile to name drop the most senior person that you know will be participating in a "Well, we all now that Mr. Knudsen is going to go with his alma mater UNC even though they missed the tournament" sort of way. This should put a bit of institutional muscle behind this operation and help grease the wheels. If you get the word out on Monday then you have until noon on Thursday for participants to come out of the wood work. And they will.

Lastly, be sure to attached PDF of a bracket to your invite email and also include a hyperlink that leads to a printable version of the bracket. You want to make it as easy as possible for people to participate. Mostly because you want their money but also because it's more fun that way.

The WWOD? Risk-Rewarding NCCA Office Pool Scoring System
In order to show that my preference for paper brackets isn't just some self-indulgent whim, I've created a scoring system that I think fosters more competitive spirit than the standard scoring employed by most online bracket vendors. The thrice-tested WWOD? scoring system rewards those who correctly pick upsets. Because being right when the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos take out the University of Florida should not be just as valuable as correctly tapping Kansas to get past the Boston University Terriers. That is not what this tournament is all about.

When Taylor Coppenrath and the Vermont Catamounts knocked off Syracuse on TJ Sorrentine's three-pointer in 2005, and I had actually guessed prognosticated that result in the office pool, well, I wanted a statue erected in my honor next to the water cooler. Is that so wrong? I don't think so. And while I haven't set up a quick-turnaround statue company, I have composed this upset-emphasizing scoring system. There are two main components of this paten-pending method.

1. The WWOD? Upset Bonus
When an upset occurs and a bracketeer has correctly filled it out on their bracket then they get the difference of the team's seeds added to their score as an UPSET BONUS. So if the No. 15 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos really do knock of the No. 2 seeded Florida Gators and you were to correctly guess that then you would receive 13 bonus points added to your score.

2. The Fibonacci Normalizer
With such extravagant bonuses for picking first-round upsets, you might ask, "Well doesn't this mean that everyone will just pick every upset hoping to rack up bonus points?" And, it might if I hadn't already thought about that and created a scoring system that makes correct picks increasingly valuable as we get deeper into the tournament. In other words, if you go against all the high seeds early to accrue bonus points then you'll be hosed as the tournament advances.

I scoured the world of mathematics (read: googled "math" and "counting") when trying to find out a way to raise the scores incrementally by round. Finally I tracked down a certain Leonardo of Pisa, who brought us the bestselling Liber Abaci. The son of a successful Italian merchant, this guy learned about counting and numbers from the brightest minds of the Arab world and convinced Europeans to give up Roman numerals for the much easier to compute 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. The adoption of the Hindu-Arabic numerals by the West was really a game-changer in world history. Sort of like the addition of the three-point line.

For his troubles, Leonardo of Pisa later had a number sequence named in his honor. Even though his name was Leo, this number sequence was called the Fibonacci Sequence. It is a string of numbers in which any number after the first two, which are 0 and 1, is the sum of the previous two numbers.

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 ...

One of the special things about the Fibonacci numbers is that they occur in nature, such as in the branching of trees, the arrangements of leaves on a stem and a bunch of other stuff. And, if something is good enough for Mother Nature then it's surely good enough for our office pool.

Points Values By Round:
Round 1: 2 points for each correct pick
Round 2: 3 points for each correct pick
Sweet 16: 5 points for each correct pick
Elite 8: 8 points for each correct pick
Final Four: 13 points for each correct pick
Championship Game: 21 points

Scoring Example:
Again, if those No. 15 UCSB Gauchos really do knock off No. 2 Florida then anyone who picks that game correctly gets 2 points because it's a first-round game + 13 points for the Upset Bonus. That's 15 points for that one game.

Each game is tabulated thusly. Games in which the higher seed prevails just get the appropriate round value. This applies to every game in every round. So if a No. 3 seed edges a No. 1 seed in the championship game then anyone who correctly picked that winner receives the 21 points for the round + the 2 points for the difference in seeds.

For all the attention paid to upsets in this system, most bonus-based leads evaporate in the Sweet 16. And that 21-point score for nailing the champ is hard to beat. Just like with most scoring systems, the winning brackets will need to have their Final Four largely intact and tend to have the correct champ. The true difference with the WWOD? scoring system is that those who sniffed out the right Cinderellas will get a slight boost over those who went chalk in a year when a common pick cuts down the nets. It's very hard to win this sort of pool if you don't get at least one of the few big upsets correctly.

The Stakes
This is totally dependent on where you work. If you're the sommelier in the employee lunchroom at Monocles and Scepters Incorporated then maybe you can go as high as $100 per bracket. But I've always gone between $10 and $20 per bracket. Ideally, no one will be intimidated by price and a handful of people will play multiple brackets.

The Lifeguard at the Office Pool
And, here's the part you didn't want to hear. Running an office pool this way, the right way, requires someone to do a lot of work. You've got to compose clever emails that include references to the tournament itself as well as the various folks in your office. You've got resist the temptation to spend the big wad of money at a bar during the first weekend of the tournament. And the second. You've got to do math. And then check your math. And then re-check it because Lynda in Accounting thinks you might have her score wrong. You've got to carry around an Inter-office envelope with all the brackets stuffed inside and not lose that envelope. Or change any of the brackets in that envelope. And you've got to deal with everyone waiting on scoring updates after each round of games. Because they will.

So, yeah, it will take up a lot of your time.

But, that's also part of the fun. You can distract yourself from a month of your actual job. It's also a great way to meet people in your workplace and get people to see you in a slightly different light. And, yes, that light may be tinted by gambling but it will also illuminate your leadership skills and ability to complete a complex project. Oh, and it will keep you from working. Did I mention that?

Now, in the name of Ludd and Fibonacci and Coopenrath go out there and start some workplace gambling!

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